What an opportunity these past couple weeks have been — for old scores to be settled, for subconscious biases to be made plain, for all corners of the internet to pontificate on the racial battle being waged in the wake of George Zimmerman’s trial regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin.
So many opinions about race in America.
And then the president weighed in, and the far-right, predictably, set itself ablaze.
Conservative commentators have derided President Obama for his personal remarks about the Trayvon Martin tragedy. A common refrain undergirds this conservative criticism. It goes something like this: black people should stop crying over white racism and start fixing their disordered black communities.
This criticism — that black leaders are blind to the perceived disarray of black communities — traffics in mythmaking.
For example, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the black conservative Shelby Steele tells us, “One wants to scream at all those outraged at the Zimmerman verdict: Where is your outrage over the collapse of the black family? Today's civil-rights leaders swat at mosquitoes like Zimmerman when they have gorillas on their back. Seventy-three percent of all black children are born without fathers married to their mothers. And you want to bring the nation to a standstill over George Zimmerman?”
And, the next day in The American Spectator, the conservative writer and sometimes-actor Ben Stein asks: “Why no rallies led by ‘black leaders’ against the Crips and the Bloods? The number of black kids whose lives have been ruined by irresponsible parents is immense. Why no rallies against crack-smoking moms and dads?” After detailing the many reasons he believes the “black community in this nation is in crisis,” Stein concludes: “I am terribly worried about the problems of black America.” (Somebody give this man a tissue.)
What animates these comments is the idea that the black community (which, really, is a quite heterogeneous entity) is “disordered” and “problematic.” The idea is nothing new. Whether we place the blame on white racism or black dysfunction, most agree that low-income black neighborhoods face many challenges. The black ghetto, mind you, is America’s favorite punching bag — it’s where we go to play the blame game, where we proselytize to disorderly youth, where we project our own middle class insecurities.
While the idea of a disordered black community is hardly original, what is of fairly recent invention is the accusation that black leaders are overly concerned with structural racism and not so much with the problems endemic to their communities. Both ideas are, in the end, myths.
Let’s take the second myth first: The idea that black people and black leaders focus on racism instead of the perceived state of their low-income neighborhoods. One favorite target of this myth, at least recently, has been the president. Conservatives, like Steele and Stein, have stumbled over themselves in a rush to condemn the president for his recent remarks regarding the role that race may have played in our criminal justice system. In their excitement, they seem to have fallen, hit their heads, and suffered a bout of amnesia, for every other time the president has spoken about race he has placed a healthy helping of obligation on the shoulders of black America. Time after time after time, President Obama has insisted that black fathers do more and that black students do better. This spring, he went out of his way to tell a group of mostly-black graduating students at Morehouse that “We’ve got no time for excuses […] nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and overcame.” Obama’s language makes this writer writhe. And yet, it is the exact kind of personal-responsibility-style black leadership that Steele and Stein advocate.
And Obama is not the only black leader, or black person, advocating for some form of personal responsibility — or, more precisely, for being personally responsible on behalf of one’s community. On a daily basis, black activists from Detroit to Washington, D. C., are organizing to eliminate the violence, drugs and crime that affect their communities (Here are your rallies, Mr. Stein). A phalanx of black organizations and community groups, though not always perfect, work largely unnoticed to better these communities. These leaders and organizers spend little time thinking about white racism. In fact, it is the black poor who are the least likely to see the ways in which dominant power structures inhibit their life chances, as the sociologist Alford Young informs us in his book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men.
On to the first myth: The idea that the black community is disordered and problematic. Throughout American history, black people, neighborhoods, and lifestyles have long been stigmatized as other, different, violent, and, in the final analysis, a problem. By now, we can assume that the dominant gaze has realized, at the very least, that black people, neighborhoods, and lifestyles are diverse — there are black bankers as well as black prostitutes, drug dealers as well as pharmaceutical reps, a South Side of Chicago as well as a Sag Harbor. But even low-income, inner-city black neighborhoods — those poverty-stricken areas we see on TV — are not as disordered as conservatives (and even, some liberals) paint them to be.
With regard to drug use, low-income blacks use drugs at lower rates than whites of similar socio-economic backgrounds. And even for those who use drugs, recent findings suggest that drug use may not be the life-altering problem we make it out to be. A recent longitudinal study has revealed that poverty has more of a determining factor on the life outcomes of “crack babies” than does crack-cocaine itself. Moreover, violence in the inner-city is not as it may seem. On average, violent crime rates have been on the decline, even in urban areas, and numerous studies have found perceptions of black inner-city crime to be overblown. Still, one death is one too many and the culture of guns, throughout all of America, is a national concern. And with regard to the "absent black father" problematic, the absence of fathers in the household is similarly an increasingly American phenomenon rather than a black American phenomenon. Rates of absentee fathers have increased among all races. Interestingly, absentee black fathers standout — in a positive way. Though not married to their children’s mothers, these fathers often cohabit with their children. In fact, among all fathers who do not live with their children, black fathers are more likely than other fathers to visit their children on a regular basis. It appears, contra Mr. Steele’s analogy, that the mosquito is absentee fathers and the gorilla, poverty and structural racism.
Poor black neighborhoods have their difficulties, sure. But these difficulties are not individual-level failures that can be eliminated by calls for greater personal responsibility. The inequalities faced by low-income black neighborhoods spring from multiple generations of concentrated poverty — poverty that persists because of discrimination and an apathetic and crumbling welfare state. And furthermore, these difficulties, though real, are hideously aggrandized in the national imagination. “Crack-smoking moms and dads” don’t roam the streets, and the notion that the black family has “collapsed” ignores the ways in which extended families and cohabiting fathers care for their children and communities. The thing is we’re working on it — on all fronts. Every day black leaders work to better their communities in untold, unsexy ways. What low-income black communities don’t need are brow beatings from writers pontificating on the sidelines. If conservatives like Mr. Stein are as “terribly worried” about low-income black communities as they protest, then perhaps they’ll join us in the trenches.