Saturday, March 05, 2016

'300 years a slave'? Further thoughts on #BlackLivesMatter.

With all the talk of the integral role black Americans will play in electing our next presidentand before that, in bulwarking Hillary's stand against BernieI thought the time was right for a reboot of some thoughts I posted in a different format a while back. By the way, I'm not so sure there isn't some level of push-back against #BLM in "the community," from elders and other hard-working taxpayers who see the hashtag-cum-movement as a transparent excuse for hooliganism. These decent black folk hate thugs and thuggery as much as any resident of some lily-white suburb. (Remember that Baltimore Mom who saw her son acting the fool during the riots and promptly went out to slap him upside the head and bring him home?) Also, as has often been pointed out, most notably by Spike (Chi-Raq) Lee, #BLM leadership tend to act if the only black lives that matter are the relative handful taken by police. Finally, as I've noted before, it's not like Mike Brown and the others who became cause celebres were in the library studying for their MCATS when they were felled by police bullets. All of which makes me question the knee-jerk assumption that pandering Dems will pitch a virtual shutout against Trump (or whomever) in their courtship of Black America.

Now I grant you, only an idiot or the most unreconstituted racist would deny that too many cops profile blacks. In general, however, if you're not doing something you shouldn't be doing, you're not going to get killed. Sure, the death of Eric "I Can't Breathe" Garner strikes me (and most others) as unforgivable. But the man was selling illegal cigs, then mouthed off to cops when confronted. Though he should not have ended up dead, he did set the whole sad scene in motion.

Anyway, you might call this "300 Years a Slave." Eager to hear your reactions.

The larger theme to emerge from #BlackLivesMatter is that the various ills plaguing black America are the enduring legacy of "America's original sin," slavery. In this conception of the American racial divide, every black continues to bear the stigmata of painful wounds inflicted on his forebears 300 years ago. Whenever I hear that argument broached—nightly or thereabouts on CNN; monthly or thereabouts in some tome by the latest minority literati darling—I'm reminded of two things. One is the so-called black-rage defense that surfaced during the 1994 trial of Long Island Railroad mass shooter Colin Ferguson. The second is the wholesale damage wreaked on society-at-large by Alcoholics Anonymous and its various philosophical spin-offs, which became apparent during the research for my 2005 book, SHAM.

Ever since the AMA bowed to the prevailing winds and in 1956 reimagined alcoholism as an incurable disease, the nation has seemed trapped in some particularly woebegone Montel Williams episode, with ever-new conceptions of blame projected by ever-new categories of victims. The gurus of self-help painted a bleak landscape that portrayed people as handicapped from within (the perpetually “wounded inner child”) and bereft of any agency in their own lives. Every failing in America's young was explained in terms of low self-esteem, which parents and educators were duty-bound to remediate through doting support and shameless apologetics. Such infantilizing gave us not only the dismal phenomenon of “helicopter” parents but also several generations of forever-children who too often lacked the wherewithal to master even life's mundane challenges, let alone the high hurdles that separate mediocrity from greatness.

The black rage chimera (which Ferguson's lawyers floated among the press but had the good sense not to implement in court) was a more pointed, race-specific rendering of that “logic”: that the pressures of living in a bigoted society infected Ferguson at his core, one day spiraling out of control and driving him to assassinate six white travelers on the LIRR. In its day, amid the law-and-order ethos that gave the city Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the gambit was unreservedly mocked.

Today's more scholarly reboot enjoys far greater traction because of the anti-authority tenor of the times as well as the fact that it's enunciated by people with considerable gravitas in punditry—notably authors
Michael Eric Dyson and Ta-Nehisi Coates (the current literary darling of all possible literary darlings), New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and CNN's insufferable, one-tune Sunny Hostin. Such talking heads make black dysfunction sound as if it were some multi-generational Bhopal rather than a self-defeating mindset or conditioned reflex passed from father to son. I use the phrase “father to son” pointedly, as no “better” example of this paternal transmission exists than Coates' celebrated book, Between the World and Me, which the author frames as a letter to his teenage son, Samori. To read the book—and I have—is to feel chained to a grim destiny within some suffocatingly hostile parallel universe, ever-vulnerable to unprovoked assaults on body and spirit.

This outlook has no place in 21st Century America. For starters, Reconstruction was a very long time ago. More to the point, such thinking does a profound disservice to young blacks, especially when shared in the name of consciousness raising. (I find it plainly heartbreaking that Coates would do that to his own son.) It supplies a ready-made alibi for impressionable young adults to keep repeating to themselves in rationalizing their failures and—common sense would tell you—has to make them feel less motivated about persevering in the face of disappointment. When you persuade people that they're helpless victims of an endemic malady, you undercut the very empowerment with which you aspire to imbue them. (Hence my gripe with AA.)

Further, a dialectic in which white America always bears the blame also would seem to make any given problem white America's to fix. A recent article on Pro Publica argues this explicitly in claiming that the lack of Congressional action on gun control accounts for inner-city crime—as if it's somehow Paul Ryan's job to prevent some thug from holding up the local 7-Eleven. (Could Pro Publica really be implying that expecting any moral compass from inner-city blacks themselves is a bridge too far?) Similarly, we're led to believe by the likes of Hostin and Blow that racist teachers and uncaring administrations are responsible for all those black kids who are suspended (or who, later, drop out of college). And it is maleficent cops, juries and judges who explain “mass incarceration.”

One wonders how slavery itself could be more dehumanizing than telling young blacks they're doomed to whatever fate white America has in store for them.

Every day in the American court system, juries convict defendants of violent crimes despite horrific personal histories that are far more immediate and relevant than a three-centuries-old heritage of slavery. Take a look at Charles Manson's upbringing, or the bios of so many violent sexual predators...and tell me that the contextual factors in their coming-of-age had nothing to do with their turning out as they did. Even so, the social contract requires that felons, especially violent ones, be held personally liable for their actions. We do not incarcerate their their mother's reprobate ex-boyfriend or the bullies who accosted them in the schoolyard. If you transgress, you pay the price.

So too, while people should never be punished because of color, nor should they be excused based on color.

No reasonable person wants to see anyone unjustly denied the multifarious possibilities of American life. (And let's remember that the same social contract guarantees only possibilities, not outcomes.) Yes, as that video of the killing of Laquan McDonald appears to show, we have a policing problem. And yes, as the video of that cop hurling that teenage black girl off her chair suggests, there are issues of fairness in school as well. But there are also issues with black America itself that predispose the misbegotten circumstances in which too many black Americans find themselves. There are issues in the circumstances in which affected blacks are conceived and raised; in the peer pressure they feel to shun white conventions; in the need (among some) to be loud and lewd and rebellious and even belligerent...which the punditry class too often dismiss as "cultural differences." The girl who got tossed from her chair refused to get off her cell phone despite repeated requests, then gave lip to both the teacher and the (overreacting) officer. Whether or not that's a cultural difference, it is an unacceptable level of defiance that speaks poorly of the young woman's prospects. That nonsense must stop. And black elders must come out and say so, instead of reaffirming age-old resentments, as Coates and now Dyson do in their books.

As a nation, we have embraced the founding ethic that all men are created equal; if so, then all men must be equally answerable for what they do (or don't do) in life. Such consensus understandings must be part of the “open dialog on race" that leading black voices and liberal elites keep calling for. Or else we will still be trying to have that dialog on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and beyond.


Anonymous said...

This is ol' Rodg BTW,

First off make no mistake I'm not a Trump supporter, Steve. The man is a buffoon and an embarrassment and yet as you pointed out in your tweets he's also a reflection of what happens when we allow the authorized social and cultural narrative to become so completely awash in politicized bullshit. There is genuine rage out there in America at the degree to which we alibi for evildoing. No one is responsible for himself on an individual basis anymore! That should be redundant by the way but isn't because of how we project blame today on everyone but the individual (IF he's black.) It's like you also said about the "mass incarceration" myth, these guys were doing SOMETHING when they got arrested! Even if they were just smoking dope the law said DON'T SMOKE DOPE. So obey the damn law! Especially if you know cops look extra hard at blacks, why take chances? But I bet you the bulk of people doing 10 years or more aren't doing it for getting caught with a joint. Plus it all starts with the total lack of any kind of moral tone set in inner city homes so girls begin having sex at 12 and babies at 14 and they're in no position to raise them right and it all snowballs. Then John Q Taxpayer has to clean up the mess.

If more politicians on both sides were saying some of this there would be no "need" for a candidate like Donald Trump. Trump is what happens when the public, including as you say good and decent black Americans get fed up with being spoonfed garbage that insults everyone's intelligence.

Anonymous said...

Commentaries such as this one is a major reason why black/white relations continue to be at odds. Mainstream (primarily white) narratives continue to make sweeping generalizations about black people and recognize them as fact. Blacks are the ONLY group of people which its lowest denominator is viewed as the standard for ALL black people by other groups. This is evidenced in here with the use of the term 'black dysfunction'. What exactly is black dysfunction? A family run by a single parent? an alcoholic parent? drug addicted parent? Being unemployed? People having underage sex? Gotcha! These things are only relegated to black people. Society doesn't characterize whites by Charlie Sheen, Jared Fogle, or Columbine shooters. Yet, non blacks continue to use sensationalized examples about blacks to make a point like, " it all starts with the total lack of any kind of moral tone set in inner city homes so girls begin having sex at 12 and babies at 14 and they're in no position to raise them right and it all snowballs. Then John Q Taxpayer has to clean up the mess". Yet, Bristol Palin having a baby at 17 is an isolated occurrence in the white community so John Q isn't worried about cleaning that up.

The main part that non-blacks refuse to acknowledge (for various reasons), is that the SYSTEMS established 100's of years ago are still in place today significantly contribute to blacks, as a group, from sharing in the spoils that other groups do/have. Police have brutalized blacks well before rap music and sagging pants.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 1:22, thank you so much for stopping by and weighing in. You frame things in a way that hadn't fully occurred to me, no doubt because (as you suggest) I see the world through white eyes. That said, I do feel a response percolating up from within me, and I want to do your comment justice so I'm not going to reply off the cuff in the middle of a busy day. Please stop back in a few days, if you would.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 1:22, I hope you're still checking back, for this is the answer I promised you. You won't like it. But we're speaking plainly here so I'll speak plainly. These are honest questions and there should be no penalty for asking them.

Why do so many undesirable characteristics seem so concentrated in black areas? As I've pointed out before, it isn't just poverty...because much of Appalachia is just as poor (if not more so) than the worst black "ghettos," yet the rate of violent crime in Appalachia is a fraction of what it is in inner cities. So it would appear to have something to do with being black. What is the something? Is it environmental? The insurmountable legacy of slavery (and ongoing white racism)? That's your answer and the one we're spoon-fed by activists and the media. But could it be something innate? Something hard-wired into blacks that means MORE blacks are likely to have trouble in life than are other races? (We're not allowed to go there; merely asking the question is deemed racist. But why should that be so? Isn't it the most obvious of all questions to ask, and the possibility that should be investigated first?) What if it's true that the average black isn't as intelligent as the average person of another race; and/or is more inclined toward violence? Wouldn't that explain a lot? Wouldn't it be worth knowing? Hell, we know that some breeds of dog are more intelligent, while some are more inclined to be aggressive; why can't we explore such areas regarding certain "breeds" of people?

And no, I am NOT comparing blacks to dogs!

I am simply wondering why we're forbidden to categorize people by traits in the same way that we freely categorize other species: dogs, breeds of cats, etc. For that matter, when it comes to bias, we seem to have no problem at all concluding that teenage boys are a menace on the highway: we punish all teen boys for the sins perpetrated by many of their peers, charging them much higher insurance rates. If as a society we're OK with doing that...why can't we profile blacks as being potentially (or at least seemingly) more criminal than other races? I'm sure you recall the infamous Jessie Jackson remark about how ashamed he was to hear footsteps behind him and then feel a surge of relief at turning around to see a group of white kids. If even Rev. Jackson has such a cynical impressions of blacks, why is it wrong for the rest of us?

Why can't we at least do some fact-finding?

(Have you seen the early science on genes that appear to predispose greater tendencies toward intelligence and violence? So far the research raises more questions than it answers, but it's surely eye-opening.)

And when it comes to being downtrodden and/or forced to start from unpromising circumstances... I personally knew many people in SoCal who arrived here as Laotian/Vietnamese boat people in the late 70s or early 80s; they didn't have two sticks to rub together and in some cases didn't even speak five words of English. They faced unrelenting prejudice daily: They were called gooks and slants and rice-dicks and, forgive me, swamp-niggers. They were visibly different from other residents. Yet within a generation they were homeowners in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the U.S.; and they had raised kids who were off to nice colleges. How did THEY manage to negotiate the social labyrinth that so many blacks seem to find so challenging?

Look, the bottom line is: I think there are too many alibis thrown around too easily by too many people who should know better. We all want equality of opportunity and even reasonably equal outcomes, but demagoguery doesn't help. Let's know what we're dealing with before we assign blame.

Steve Salerno said...

And there's a bigger point, Anon. The point is that this should be, MUST BE, part of the "open dialog on race" everyone keeps calling for. It's the only way forward.