Thursday, December 28, 2006

Poor Blacks Can Succeed With Encouragement

Juan Williams, in the Altlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week, noted that the best way to encourage the upward mobility of poor blacks was to encourage them to adopt mainstream behavior.

Such suggestions have come under fire by some liberal black academics as "blaming the victim," and their attacks are confined not just to members of the black middle class, but anyone who speaks out against such self-defeating behavior 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 childrent":

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."

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....

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.

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.

I cited Williams in an earlier post discussing "The Hard Facts About Black America." Williams new book is, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- And What We Can Do About It.

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