The War Within

Maybe Bill Cosby has a point.


The question nagging at me comes out of a very animated panel discussion on Martha's Vineyard last summer that dealt with that perennial hot-button issue of race in America: Do we have to talk about "group culture" when dealing with the status of blacks in America?

One panelist insisted that black culture was deeply implicated in black poverty and disadvantage in America. And then came the bashing.

"The problem is 'discrimination,'" came one reply.

"It's white supremacy," insisted another.

"It is structural racism," intoned a third. Everyone chimed in, resulting in a slow pummeling of the panelist who had the temerity to turn in that direction.

At one level, the thrashing was justified. The original claim is that African Americans suffer from a self-inflicted victimology. It's easier to blame white racism than it is to study hard, play by the rules of the game and earn advancement the old fashioned way: that is, by dint of one's efforts and talents.

Indeed, by the end of the discussion I was bashing the victimologist, too. But I did so with a measure of regret. The core of this message needed to be challenged and rebuked. "Black victimology" has become an all-too-easily-deployed epithet disguised as a sophisticated answer to nagging social problems. In reality, however, it is mainly an anti-black slogan rendered "safe" by vociferous declarations to its veracity by the right.

The same sort of knee-jerk reaction against a discussion of group culture came up when Barack Obama gave his speech on Father's Day (which I applauded at the time) drawing attention to and bemoaning the fact that there are too many absentee fathers in black families and households around the country. It was that speech that provoked the Rev. Jesse Jackson's ill-considered, on-mic comments about wanting to castrate Obama, yet another very public sign of the intense emotions this subject arouses in black communities and among black leaders.

Still, I felt as if the whole panel, myself included, had gone too far in dismissing the "black culture" argument. In trying to make a point too quickly in a time-constrained public forum, we all allowed the howl of "No!" to completely override any serious engagement with the very real issue of black group culture, a problem calling out for a real discussion.

Such a discussion is in order because of the many troubling patterns of behavior in black communities, especially poor black communities that warrant close attention. It's the relatively low priority placed on education and mastery of standard English, the apparent virtue too many of our youth attach to gangsterism, a widespread embrace of thuggishness, embodied in the so-called "cool pose" and a smug sense of entitlement to the "good life," in place of an appreciation for hard work, sacrifice and the postponement of gratification for success.