Say it loudly: Poor blacks can succeed
Talk them out of rut of despair
By JUAN WILLIAMS
Published on: 12/26/06
The black American middle class is under attack. And what is their sin? The fire is coming from black academics who argue that any middle-class black person calling on the black poor to take advantage of opportunities to get out of poverty is really ashamed of poor black people. And the charges can get personal. Critics are saying that black people such as Bill Cosby are caught up in a self-hating frenzy as they try to distance themselves from their poor brothers and sisters.
For middle class black people, the charges range from "You forget where you came from" to "You are blaming the victim." But these attacks target far more than the black middle class. White people who call attention to the obvious are attacked as insensitive, if not racist. Anyone speaking to self-defeating behavior among the black poor — such as dropping out of high school at exorbitant rates, drug use, criminal behavior, high numbers of children born out of wedlock and parents abandoning their children — is open to these charges.
This is the case even if a black adult dares to object to a black teenager screaming curse words and hate-filled rap on a crowded train.
William Cobb, a Spelman College history professor, has written that anyone correcting that offensive behavior is more concerned with what white people think about them. That fits with the general criticism, from another African-American professor, Michael E. Dyson, of the University of Pennsylvania. He has written that the black middle class unfairly "rain down fire and brimstone upon poor blacks for their deviance and pathology."
Unfortunate code of silence
In a new book "Enough," I write about the 25 percent of black America locked in poverty and the shocking picture of dysfunction evident in a 70 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans; a 50 percent high school dropout rate and a disheartening 40 percent of America's prisoners being black.
Instead of addressing these problems head-on in the black community, there has been a long, chilling silence because few black leaders want to be targeted by critics who charge them with being elitist or excusing the historic damage done by white racism.
Black intellectuals, such as Cobb and Dyson, are enforcing that code of silence. They are also defending the sad status quo among poor black people. Added to the recipe is the intellectual defense of hip-hop — with music, videos and films — that excuses failure and even celebrates destructive, criminal "Gangsta" behavior such as violence, stealing to get 'bling-bling' and abusive treatment of women.
Much of the rationalization for this self-defeating behavior among too many of the black poor is that high crime rates, high dropout rates and abusive relationships afflict all urban populations. The evidence is that Irish and Italian immigrants had problems when they arrived on American shores and brought high rates of crime and high dropout rates to the cities.
The flaw in that argument is that the population of poor black Americans we are discussing did not just land in Atlanta, Birmingham or Washington. Black Americans today are born into a world exceeding what most immigrants left behind.
It is a false analogy to make 21st century black Americans the equal of early 20th century immigrants. How many times can you be an immigrant? Even among today's immigrants with black skin — people from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean — the level of educational attainment and income is outpacing black Americans. If the issue is racism, how is it that black newcomers are doing so well?
The story of black Americans is as old as this nation. It is an inspiring struggle for equal rights in the face of slavery, through the Civil War, and then against laws that had the government enforce racial segregation. The prize for this movement for racial justice has always been equal right to compete in schools, in jobs, in the military, at the voting booth and at the swimming pool. The quest has always been about leveling the playing field and giving black people a chance to show their genius.
Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: All of these leaders gave their lives to open the doors of equal opportunity in the American mainstream for black Americans. Their success has created the largest, most affluent and politically powerful black population in world history. Racism persists in America, complete with stereotypes, mistrust and discrimination. But it is nothing comparable to the exclusion and violence that limited past generations of blacks. Most black Americans, as they fight to move up economically and put their children in position to succeed, reject any victim mentality. They appreciate that greater opportunities exist for this generation than for any of our predecessors.
Words of encouragement
Yet there is this hard fact — a persistent 25 percent poverty rate among black people today. Sadly, statistics show it is often identified with the same group of people, the same families, from generation to generation. It is the exact opposite of compassion to lie to people about the source of many of their problems when it is clear that they are often hurting themselves.
A recent article in The New York Times reported that child psychologists have found that by age 3, the average child of a middle-class professional has heard 500,000 words of encouragement and 80,000 words of discouragement. Among children in welfare families, the numbers were turned on their heads with 75,000 words of encouragement and 200,000 words of discouragement. Middle-class parents, the researchers found, also spoke to their children about the value of education. They regularly discuss with children family rules, current events and how to negotiate difficult situations and people.
These are middle-class values that benefit people, black or white.
To encourage the black poor to adopt these values is not evidence of self-hate but offering good news about how people can help themselves and their children to succeed. It is good news to know that if you stay in school and at least graduate from high school, then stay in the job market and don't have a child until you are in your 20s and married, you have little chance of being poor.
It is right — not self-hating — to tell an obnoxious kid cursing on the train to stop it because he is not only obnoxious but displaying behavior that will hurt his chances in life.
Instead of condescending to the poor by rationalizing bad behavior, the academics should offer themselves and their success as evidence of what black people can do with discipline and hard work, despite racism. The academics who prefer to disparage the black middle class when it offers guidance and inspiration are not hurting the black middle class — they are hurting the black poor.
Juan Williams, senior correspondent for National Public Radio, is author of "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965."