Written by Myron Magnet
July 20, 2008
Some brave voices are shifting the conversation from victimhood to responsibility.
From emancipation to Brown v. Board, African-Americans saw education as a radical tool of liberation.The conversation about race that Barack Obama says America needs is already in full swing-and it is a conversation among blacks. Its spark was a speech that TV star Bill Cosby gave at the NAACP in 2004.
In books and articles, on talk shows and in town meetings, at barbecues and barber shops, African-Americans have been arguing over his words ever since. Their impassioned discussion is the most hopeful development in race relations in years.
With a 50 percent high school dropout rate and a 70 percent illegitimacy rate, with African-Americans committing half the nation’s murders though only 13 percent of the population, black America—especially the poorer part of it—is in trouble. “We cannot blame white people,” Cosby asserted in his incendiary speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board school desegregation decision. “It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing.” As Jesse Jackson used to say, Cosby recalls, “No one can save us from us but us.”
Sure, racism hasn’t vanished, Cosby acknowledges in his 2007 book Come On People, a follow-up to his speech written with Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint. “But for all the talk of systemic racism and governmental screw-ups, we must look at ourselves and understand our own responsibility.” Even with lingering discrimination, “there are more doors of opportunity open for black people today than ever before in the history of America,” and “these doors are tall enough and wide enough” for just about all black people “to walk through with their heads held high.” So while “there are forces that make the effort to escape poverty difficult,” African-Americans are by no means merely the playthings of vast forces and helpless victims of racism. “When people tell you, ‘You can’t get up, you’re a victim,’ ” Cosby warns, “that’s when you know it is the devil you’re hearing.”
Why do so many blacks, especially men, find it so hard to grasp the opportunity that is theirs for the taking? Why are “so many of our black youth squandering their freedom?” Cosby and Poussaint’s answer is that the social structure and culture of poor black neighborhoods distort the psychology of the children who grow up there, often shackling them in “psychological slavery.” The authors zero in on the permanently destructive effects of fractured families and slapdash child rearing—much more slapdash than middle-class parents, with their years spent nurturing, encouraging, and cajoling their children, could easily imagine. “In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on,” Cosby told the NAACP. “You have the pile-up of these sweet beautiful things born by nature—raised by no one.”
Certainly their fathers aren’t raising them. That 70 percent illegitimacy rate, troubling in itself, isn’t evenly distributed but is concentrated in poor neighborhoods, where it soars above 85 percent and can approach 100 percent. “A house without a father is a challenge,” Cosby and Poussaint write. “A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe.” That’s because mothers “have difficulty showing a son how to be a man,” a truly toxic problem when there are no father figures around to show boys how to channel their natural aggressiveness in constructive ways. Worse still, the authors muse, “We wonder if much of these kids’ rage was born when their fathers abandoned them.”
To come into the world already abandoned by your father is damaging enough, but Come On People teems with children abandoned by their mothers as well. Many end up among America’s half-million foster children, two-thirds of whom—more than 300,000 abused or cast-off souls—are black. We meet a Kentuckian born in a housing project and taken away from her jailed, drug-addicted mother at the age of six. After a string of foster homes and group facilities, she began doing “drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, gangbanging, hustling. I was in and out of jail,” she says. “I was angry. I would fight at the drop of a dime.” We hear of an eight-year-old smash-and-grab burglar abandoned even more abruptly. A cop tells the authors about catching him. The boy wouldn’t say one word, beyond the address of his housing-project home. The officer drove the boy there, followed him into his apartment, and saw his mother on the sofa. The boy finally spoke. “She’s dead, ain’t she?” And she was, with the needle that killed her lying on the floor. The boy calmly ate a bowl of cereal as he watched the cop deal with the body.
We hear of children abandoned emotionally if not literally. Another cop tells of a seven-year-old he picked up for bashing out car windows. “I’m very good at making these kids cry,” the cop said. “But this one, I couldn’t touch him.” He drove the kid home to what looked like a shack. The boy opened the door, and there was his mother on a mattress on the floor, having sex. The boy walked past the couple “and sealed himself off behind a curtain.” The man fled; the mother signed the form the cop held out to her, “pulled the covers over her head, and left her son standing mutely behind the curtain.”
These are the extreme cases, but even among normal poor black single-parent families Cosby and Poussaint find child-rearing patterns that prime kids for failure. Since the authors believe that too many black adults “are giving up their main responsibility to look after their children,” they make a portion of their book a child-raising handbook—an inner-city Dr. Spock—whose sound, simply stated advice makes clear what they think is going wrong in numerous ghetto families. Their optimistic, encouraging precepts, in spite of themselves, lift the curtain on a world of heartrending childhood sorrow and suffering, which ordinarily no one comes to help or comfort, and which leaves scars that never heal.
Above all, they counsel, spare the rod. “Many black parents use physical punishment—not just spanking, but also hitting, slapping, and beating kids with objects,” they report. Indeed, “many black parents have told us that physical punishment is part of black culture.” But, Cosby and Poussaint warn, “when they beat their kids they are sending a message that it is okay to use violence to resolve conflicts,” rather than helping them develop self-control and a sense of right and wrong. Too often, physical punishment turns into child abuse; too often, parents (or caregivers, especially the mother’s boyfriend) “beat their kids, not to discipline them, but to exorcise their own demons. . . . They take their anger out on the child,” who “serves as a ‘whupping’ object for peevish adults. . . . These beatings often produce angry children who treat others as violently as they have been treated.” The prisons are bursting with grown-up abused children.
In addition to physical abuse, Cosby and Poussaint observe, we’ve all cringed at hearing inner-city mothers abusing kids verbally as well, making them feel worthless and unwanted. “Words like ‘You’re stupid,’ ‘You’re an idiot,’ ‘I’m sorry you were born,’ or ‘You’ll never amount to anything’ can stick a dagger in a child’s heart.” Single mothers angry with men, whether their current boyfriends or their children’s fathers, regularly transfer their rage to their sons, since they’re afraid to take it out on the adult males. “If they hear their mom say, ‘Black men ain’t worth s—-,’ the boys wonder whether that includes them. When their moms yell, ‘You’re no good, just like your father!’ all the doubt goes away.” When such racially tinged verbal abuse takes the form of “ ‘Nigger, I’ll kick your f——— black a—,’ ” the child ends up ashamed of being black, as well—a danger anyway in a society where rumors of black inferiority still echo, if more faintly.
One of black America’s most disabling problems, Cosby and Poussaint think, is this wounded anger—of children toward parents, women toward men, men toward their mothers and women in general. Some try self-sedation, whether by “wallowing in sedated victimhood,” by music “loud enough to wake the dead,” by “a lover or some crack or, if nothing else, a bag of burgers.” Another way that “black men have tried to maintain their dignity and to keep control of their anger is by being ‘cool.’ . . . Many who feel abandoned by a parent protect themselves from being hurt by putting on a cool detachment.” Trouble is, beyond becoming emotionally frigid, they too easily lose their cool and explode in violence. Still, their effort is better than the hotheadedness of today’s young black gangstas, as touchy and ready to duel to the death as the Three Musketeers. “He dissed me so I shot him” is now a common ghetto refrain, Cosby and Poussaint report. Hence African-Americans account for 44 percent of U.S. prisoners; six out of ten black high school dropouts have been in prison before they hit the age of 40; and what Cosby and Poussaint call “a culture of imprisonment devastates black families and communities.”
We are celebrating a great civil rights victory, Cosby told the NAACP. People actually present in the audience “marched and were hit in the face with rocks” so that black kids could get a decent education. But now? “What the hell good is Brown v. Board of Education if nobody wants it?” What did those brave marchers achieve if, 50 years later, half of African-American kids drop out of high school and can’t speak standard English—especially since all it takes to get started in today’s more open America is a high school diploma and the ability to impress potential bosses as articulate, polite, and dependable?
This failure, too, is largely a failure of parenting. Yes, ghetto schools are bad, Cosby and Poussaint acknowledge, and parents can’t fix them. “But you can make the best use of what you have to get the best you can for your child,” they advise. You can make sure he does his homework and pays attention in class. And much of what a kid learns he learns at home, after all—especially in his crucial first five years. “Talking and reading to infants and children help lay down the physical structures in the brain to develop skills in language,” the authors point out.
But many ghetto moms aren’t imparting the language and cognitive skills without which children can’t succeed once they get to school. “Teachers report that in poor neighborhoods children often begin school not knowing their colors or the letters of the alphabet,” Cosby and Poussaint write. “Some have limited vocabularies and little knowledge of numbers. Some don’t even know that sheep go ‘Baaa.’ ” These deficits are hard to correct later on. Indeed, “sharp-eyed teachers can identify the children who will become high school dropouts the day they walk in the kindergarten door.” The damage is already done.
Readers of Come On People and the thousands who waited for hours to hear Cosby press home his message in dozens of free town meetings nationwide will surely profit from his levelheaded advice. They, and thousands more like them, will talk to their kids (in standard English and in a tone that doesn’t “sound like a prison guard”), listen to them, read to them, encourage them, discipline them with gentle firmness, limit their TV watching, and never give up on them. But these are the caring parents. The problem is the ones who don’t care—who don’t understand, as a California doctor tells Cosby, that “you have a choice as to whether to have children or not” and to “decide who gets to be your baby’s daddy,” and that once you’ve made that decision, “both of you are supposed to have something to do with that child for the rest of its life.” The problem is the girls who view sex, in Cosby’s terms, as “You see me. I see you. You want it. . . . We’re both hot. Now let’s do it”—the girls who have “five or six different children—same woman, eight, ten different husbands or whatever.”
What will become of all these “kids with different fathers,” who “compete, often unequally, for whatever attention is going around,” so that (as with the offspring of polygamous sheikhs) “there is bound to be bad blood”? What can we expect from families with “grandmother, mother, and great grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them”? How much of the cultivation of civility and virtue, which makes strong families the building blocks of a strong society, can happen here? “When we see these boys walking around the neighborhood,” say Cosby and Poussaint, “we imagine them thirty or forty years down the road wandering around just as aimlessly, and we want to cry.” For they are lost.
Black conservatives have said such things for years, only to be unthinkingly ostracized as race traitors for breaking with orthodoxy. But no one could dismiss the lovable Cosby: African-Americans are proud of his success and admire his munificence to black charities. What’s more, as Princeton prof and sometime rapper Cornel West put it, the TV star “is not in the right wing. He’s not Clarence Thomas. He is not Ward Connerly.” Nor could anyone dismiss National Public Radio’s respected Juan Williams when he emphatically endorsed Cosby’s views in a 2006 book, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It. When a longtime liberal like Williams embraces these ideas, something important is changing in the black mainstream—despite racial arsonist Al Sharpton’s effort to demonize Williams as “the black Ann Coulter.”
It requires explanation that black leaders don’t mob Cosby with support, Williams points out, because he is so obviously right. Of course today’s African-Americans have full civil rights and ample opportunity. Look at how immigrants from far-flung Ethiopia and Nigeria—no less black—succeed in their new land of opportunity. Moreover, notes Williams, Cosby’s views mirror those of the civil rights greats of old. Booker T. Washington similarly urged education and self-reliance and cautioned that “we should not permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.” W. E. B. Du Bois, despite differences with Washington, shared his “goal of black self-reliance.” Martin Luther King “said he wanted above all else to get black people to shed the idea that they did not control their destiny.” And from the moment of emancipation, “education was a radical tool of liberation for black people so recently enslaved and purposely denied the chance to learn.” From the founding of the Tuskegee Institute to Thurgood Marshall’s Brown v. Board victory to James Meredith bravely entering Ole Miss in 1962, the right to education was central to the civil rights movement. As for out-of-wedlock childbearing, married couples headed 78 percent of black families in 1950, compared with 34 percent today.
In the 1960s, this can-do worldview changed. A vast transformation of American culture combined with the black-power movement and the War on Poverty to brew a toxic new orthodoxy among black leaders, who remain stuck in that era to this day. “Very few new ideas are allowed into this stifling echo chamber,” Williams reports. Despite startling African-American progress in the intervening half-century, “the official message from civil rights leaders remains the same. Black people are victims of the system, and the government needs to increase social spending. . . . Even the most dysfunctional and criminal behavior among black people is not to be criticized by black leaders” but must “be denied and hidden in the name of protecting the image of blacks as disadvantaged, oppressed, and perpetually victimized.” Dissent, and you’re an “Uncle Tom and a sellout.”
That half-century of progress, though, makes it hard to profess the orthodoxy in good faith. Some, such as Barack Obama’s ex-pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose “black liberation theology” is pure sixties black-power political radicalism preserved in amber, still spout it sincerely. But Williams’s view of most of today’s black leaders recalls Eric Hoffer’s dictum that great causes often start out as movements but degenerate into rackets. Today’s leaders have made lucrative careers out of preaching a crippling ideology that ensures that they will never run out of poor blacks to agitate for. As Cosby quipped in one of his town meetings, “There are people who want you to remain in a hole, and they rejoice in your hopelessness because they have jobs mismanaging you.”
Williams presents a rogues’ gallery of African-American leaders who harm the people they claim to serve by blinding them to the opportunity all around them and stoking resentments that serve as excuses for wrongdoing. Jesse Jackson, “the unofficial president of black America,” takes pride of place, with Al Sharpton as runner-up. Williams “detects a smell of extortion” about them; their main business, he says, is “staging phony protest marches for money.” What blacks has Jackson benefited, except for two of his sons, whom his pressure tactics helped win a multimillion-dollar beer distributorship? Sharpton, Williams thinks, is lower still: he took a campaign contribution from a GOP operative who aimed to weaken the Democrats by keeping so polarizing a figure in their 2004 presidential primary.
When black politicians actually have won power, their politics of victimhood has often proved a rationale for not even trying to help the black masses but rather for decrying the white racism that supposedly causes their plight. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, for instance, spewed charges of racism to block officials from reforming a dysfunctional (and now closed) Los Angeles hospital that had become a high-paying jobs program for some blacks but whose poor care was harming its many black patients. Mayors Sharpe James of Newark and Marion Barry of Washington, Williams says, “saw political opportunity in making themselves masters of large pools of black people dependent on state and federal poverty programs.” The money flowed in, mayoral aides stole it and went to jail, the schools got worse, crime festered, and finally prosecutors nailed James himself for rigging the sale of city property to enrich his mistress. By contrast, Cory Booker, James’s successor, is (so to speak) the Bill Cosby of urban governance, exemplifying the right way forward for African-American pols.
If black leaders really wanted to help the black poor, Williams argues, they’d combat the “cultural belief that being ‘authentically black’ does not allow for high quality intellectual engagement in school,” as columnist Joseph H. Brown put it. They’d demand radical school reform, including vouchers. It’s a hopeful sign, Williams thinks, that New York Times editorialist Brent Staples, normally part of black orthodoxy’s amen choir, has declared that if the civil rights establishment doesn’t push hard for real school reform, even if it “would discomfort the teachers among its supporters, . . . it will inevitably be viewed as having missed the most important civil rights battle of the last half-century.”
If black leaders really wanted to help the black poor, they’d stop decrying “police brutality and the increasing number of black people in jail” and focus instead “on having black people take personal responsibility for the exorbitant amount of crime committed by black people against other black people” (which accounts for the exorbitant number of African-Americans in jail). But they don’t. As Cosby pointed out to Williams, the NAACP has its headquarters in murder-ridden Baltimore, but “I’ve never once heard the NAACP say, ‘Let’s do something about this.’ ” Indeed, Williams notes, “they never marched or organized, or even criticized the criminals.” Nor did they exhort poor black people to stop smoking crack.
But black crime devastates African-American communities. Residents live with “a sense of an enemy within. That enemy is a neighbor, a friend, possibly a child, any of whom is capable of robbing or assaulting them.” In some cities, like Baltimore, drug dealers still terrorize entire neighborhoods, which resemble Sadr City. The thugs are as vicious as Sadr City militiamen, too. Williams tells of a Baltimore woman who testified against drug dealers operating outside her house in 2002. The next day, gangbangers firebombed her house, though she managed to put out the flames. Two weeks later, they firebombed her house again, this time kicking in the front door and dousing the staircase with gasoline, incinerating the woman, her husband, and their five kids. As she was dying, the woman fruitlessly screamed, “Help me get my children out!”
Even as old-style racism fades, Williams says, the black-crime epidemic is incubating a new racism. The crime “gives credence to the racist stereotype of black people, especially young black men, as a race of marauding, jobless thugs”—a stereotype that even Jesse Jackson shares. “There is nothing so painful to me at this stage of my life,” Jackson said in 1993, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery and then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” This grim development makes it all the more urgent for black leaders to say that “the black criminal is no friend of black progress.”
So now imagine one of Bill Cosby’s “sweet beautiful things born by nature—raised by no one”—grown to teen-age, filled with rage and buried sorrow at abandonment by his father and emotional abandonment, or worse, by his mother. Imagine that his mother never nurtured his basic language and cognitive skills, or properly disciplined and encouraged him, in his crucial first five years, so that learning and even sitting still in school have been hard for him. No respected civil rights group has used its moral capital to demand school reform that could give him the structured, rigorous teaching he especially needs. Almost no national black celebrity—until Cosby—has come into his neighborhood exhorting him to stay in school and work hard, because he could become a physical therapy assistant, say, or a car mechanic, starting at $35,000 to $50,000 a year. No reverend has come down from his pulpit to lead a march against the drug dealers and gangbangers who infest his neighborhood.
Instead, whenever a cop accidentally shoots an unarmed African-American, he hears of Al Sharpton leading a rent-a-demonstration, chanting, “No justice, no peace,” a motley relic of black-power radicalism, which keeps distrust of the police alive in neighborhoods that, to be livable, need policing more than most. Come election time, perhaps he hears a local pol or campaign worker rail against racism and demand more government money. He hears his elders rage against the stinginess of the welfare office and the injustice of the Man, a convenient outlet for a deeper anger about more personal injustice and deprivation.
But most of all, he hears rap. Pumped out from CDs, videos, and television (especially Black Entertainment Television), which black kids watch even more excessively than white kids, “nihilistic glorifications of ‘thug life’ ” and celebrations of gangbangers, drug dealers, and pimps “as black heroes” constantly wash over him, says Williams. “Black rappers, dressed for every video in convict style, posturing with menacing faces, hands flashing gang signals, their heads wrapped in prison-issue do-rags, pants hanging down in the convict style, and gangland tattoos covering their bodies” do their part “to promote black identity as the criminals’ identity.” Rap, says Williams, markets the idea that “violence, murder, and self-hatred” are “true blackness—authentic black identity.” It is “an open sewer throwing up the idea that black men are most genuine, most in touch with their power, when they are getting vengeance with a gun in hand.”
We know that this message reaches its listeners, says Williams, when we see ghetto kids “dress like rappers . . . and act hard-core, using nigger, cursing, and fighting on the way to school, in school, and after school—assuming they are still in school.” And we know it as well from the crime statistics.
We know that rap’s message about sex also hits home. Its cartoon-simple sentiment, says Williams: “All black women are sexually crazed, lack discrimination about men, and deserve to be treated as mindless bitches—dogs.” In rap, Cosby once said, there is “nothing about I care for you, nothing about may I go for a walk with you . . . just I’m hot, I’m leaking, I’m dripping, come on, and I know you want it too”—or, as the title of one rap song has it, “Face Down, Ass Up, C’mon.” There is something tragic, Williams says, about poor black girls “trying to find a way to feel good about their identity in a culture that gives little reinforcement to black women” being asked to dance to music that describes them as whores and bitches. “Rap’s pumped up message to them is to get naked and shake it before giving it up to do the wild thing,” he says. And many will do just that, bearing another generation of doomed innocents, who, despite the evil done them, grow up to be responsible for their own acts.
Of course, white kids listen to this music and see these videos, too, including kids who will grow up to be corporate America’s bosses, and it affects the way they see black people, Williams says. They will come away with an image of black women as indiscriminate sluts, and black men, as African-American journalist Stanley Crouch puts it, as “monkey-moving, gold-chain-wearing, illiteracy-spouting, penis-pulling, sullen, combative buffoons.” “Who would hire such a person?” Williams asks. “Who would want to live next to them?” This $4-billion-a-year industry, in which blacks are the performers, the designers, and many of the executives, presents African-Americans to the entire world in terms the Ku Klux Klan would use. Where are the civil rights leaders?
Williams’s rogues’ gallery includes—beside the stuck-in-the-sixties civil rights pooh-bahs, the racketeering reverends, the corrupt pols, and the exploitative rappers—also the nutty black-studies professors. A typical specimen, Georgetown prof Michael Eric Dyson, leaped into the Cosby debate in 2005 with Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? Dyson’s attack, just the old victimology with a twenty-first-century twist, usefully underscores how specious and destructive that orthodoxy is. It also calls into question academe’s push for the black “perspective” on its faculties, when that perspective is by definition the harmful one of victimhood and grievance.
Cosby’s “blaming of the poor,” Dyson says, is the traditional attitude of an African-American elite “fatally obsessed with white approval” and persuaded that an embrace of “Victorian values” will win “acceptance from the white majority.” But the “pathologies” of the poor subvert their efforts, “ruining the reputation of the race.” And so, beginning long ago, the black aristocracy began “a program of moral rebuke disguised as social uplift.” Like Cosby, “they policed poor black communities from the . . . lectern,” trying to impose on them “temperance, thrift, refined manners, and Victorian sexual morals.”
But they were wrong to think that “if only the poor were willing to work harder, act better, get educated, stay out of jail and parent more effectively, their problems would go away.” It is not the personal behavior of the black poor but American society’s “structural barriers,” including the “export of jobs and ongoing racial stigma,” that prevent blacks from rising. Similar “structural barriers” hold black kids back educationally. While the suburbs boast “$60-million schools with state-of-the-art technology, . . . inner-city schools fight desperately for funding,” ensuring that “our children will continue to spiral down stairwells of suffering and oppression.”
Even black crime has a structural component, since society has consigned the black poor to “conditions that offer them limited options, which often, yes, lead to poor choices”—so that society is partly to blame. Moreover, the war on drugs “is a war on black and brown people,” and innovations in “policing measures (leading eventually to racial profiling) . . . greatly increased the odds that blacks would do serious time for nonviolent and often first-time offenses”—assertions with an untruth in almost every word. But white America has a reason for its war on minorities. “The prison-industrial complex literally provides white economic opportunity across class strata,” Dyson explains. “Big money is at stake when it comes to making a crucial choice: to support blacks at the state university or the state penitentiary.” Cosby’s call for personal responsibility is thus doubly cruel: it asks the black poor to feel undeserved blame for their own victimization, while excusing whites from coming to their rescue.
Dyson spruces up the old-style victimology with a dash of hip, multiculti relativism. In thinking he has achieved a universal humanity beyond race, because the virtues he embodies are supposedly universal, Cosby has made an error that most whites and many blacks (thanks to white dominance) make, says Dyson: that “white identity [is] normative, and hence universal.” But for black people to aspire to that identity requires “unhealthy doses of self-abnegation” and “conscious rejection of the identity they have inherited or invented.”
Much better, says Dyson, for black people to “ ‘keep it real,’ which often means honoring the ghetto roots of black identity.” African-Americans should value the “elements of mass black culture that enable black folk to resist oppression, transcend their suffering and transform their pain.” Hence Cosby is wrong to reject black English—which “grows out of the fierce linguisticality of black existence, the insistence by blacks of carving a speech of their own”—and to scoff at supposedly African names like “Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed.” Though such names may be African “only in that they reflected flair and creativity,” Dyson says, the important thing is that they recall “the freedom to name themselves” that blacks asserted under slavery, “refusing to tie their identities to the names their owners gave them.”
Cosby is at his most wrong, though, Dyson says, in his hatred of rap, which expresses the authentically black “gangsta” belief that “the lifestyle and ideology of the outlaw, the rebel and the bandit challenge the corrupt norms of the state, the government, and the rule of law in society.” So too with hip-hop fashion, with its “hats on backward, pants down around the crack” that Cosby deplored in his speech. “Fashion in black urban circles rises to performance art,” Dyson tells us. “The more daring their fashions, the less cooperative they are with bourgeois elegance, and the more they undermine bland conformism, the more likely black youth are to understand their bodies as battlefields of fierce moral contest.” Do their pants hang low? “This may be understood as sympathy dress,” an “overidentification” with relatives “who may have been caught up in a bloody urban drama. . . . It is a way of reclaiming the body of a loved one from its demobilized confinement and granting it, vicariously, the freedom to walk on the streets from which it has been removed.” And in truth, “many black youth who wear baggy pants may feel that they are already in prison, at least one of perception, built by the white mainstream and by their dismissive, demeaning elders.” Thus does the idle sophistry of armchair elites come to ratify cultural patterns once recognized as fatal to the poor.
The debate raging throughout black America is the more historic because it is also raging within the soul of America’s first black presidential nominee. Which Obama will prevail? The old-orthodoxy Obama, who sat for 20 years listening to Reverend Wright saying “God damn America” and claiming that the government purposely infected the ghetto with AIDS, who brought his daughters to hear him, and who named a book after one of his sermons? The Obama whose wife, in her grievances and resentments, her whine that America is “just downright mean,” uncannily embodies the black bourgeois attitudes that Ellis Cose described 15 years ago as The Rage of a Privileged Class? Or will it be the Obama who will truly usher in the age of postracial politics, as he seemed to promise when he first emerged as so fresh and attractive a candidate? The Obama who marked Father’s Day with a moving speech on black America’s need for responsible fathers that Bill Cosby would cheer?
At the very least, his nomination, as he himself has said, shows how much progress black America has made. Let’s hope the African-American majority will take the lesson to heart.
Myron Magnet is the author of The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. He is City Journal’s editor-at-large and was its editor from 1994 through 2006.