Black-Pathology Debate Ignores Black Reality

Our ongoing dialogue about race in America—most recently sparked by Rep. Paul Ryan’s comments—requires us to better understand African-American history.

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Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) questions witnesses during a hearing on the Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2013.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The specter of black cultural decline, or what might be called the “black-pathology hustle,” is once again making national news. Like a recurring nightmare, assertions (usually masked as allegations) of black cultural depravity periodically inspire national debates over the very meaning of race, citizenship and democracy in America.

Paul Ryan’s criticism of “inner city” youths trapped in a cycle of poverty that renders them permanently unemployable sparked a wave of critical response that was all the more noteworthy because of the kind of nuanced and insightful analysis that contradicts claims that journalism is on its last legs. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out that Ryan’s thinly veiled criticism of the black community’s moral fiber mirrored, albeit for different reasons, President Barack Obama’s at-times self-serving criticism of black family values—or at least of their perceived demise in certain quarters.

Jonathan Chait fired back at Coates in New York magazine, comparing Obama’s constructive criticism directed at predominantly black audiences to a basketball coach who, aware that the referees fail to consistently observe the rules, must nonetheless inspire his team to confront the challenges of trying to win the game.

Finally, the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb placed the entire contretemps over the meaning of Ryan’s words—as well as the culpability of liberals and conservatives in supporting such a worldview—within a larger historical context. He outlined the tradition of “respectability politics” that overlooks America’s unseemly history of racial oppression in favor of self-help bromides that gaze upon individual achievement as a magical elixir capable of curing the black community’s myriad ills.

Debates over black pathology—its existence, utility and forms of expression—form one powerful strand of several overlapping, simultaneous and ongoing conversations about race in America. As Coates noted in his rejoinder to Chait, this includes a discussion of white supremacy’s long history and continued proliferation in our national culture, observations that both conservatives and liberals are loathe to take seriously. A deep-seated historical or even artistic (think 12 Years a Slave) examination of America’s tortured racial history seems, in the age of Obama, defeatist—a slap in the face to all of those past strivers who toiled so hard to overcome daunting odds. From this perspective, dwelling on our racial past produces a kind of paralysis that prevents us all from moving forward.

Yet the denial of not just our national past but also our contemporary racial fault lines has so obscured structural roadblocks to inequality that both liberals and conservatives—at times across racial lines—find it necessary to preach values of hard work, thrift and self-sacrifice that could be lifted verbatim from Booker T. Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Exposition” speech, wherein he implored African Americans to “cast down their buckets” and commit to productive agricultural labor rather than agitate for civil and human rights.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, our national conversation about racial justice has become impoverished enough that the nation’s first black president—and, at times, first lady—feel a responsibility to remind graduating black college students, who seemingly exemplify personal responsibility and discipline, that they must work hard and not expect a free lunch.

Martin Luther King Jr. crafted the language for a third major strain of race talk in America. King imagined a world wherein black people could be treated as three-dimensional human beings. His compassionate rhetoric acknowledged both ancient racial hierarchies and contemporary structural impediments. Instead of building monuments to personal responsibility, King proposed an ethic of collective sacrifice in service of ideas—bringing about peace, ending poverty, eradicating all forms of oppression—that far exceeded the imagination of any one individual person or even nation.

But the black-pathology hustle ignores these alternative explanations and realities in favor of a narrative so powerfully comforting that it continues to mesmerize well-intended liberals and progressives, including President Obama.

We should all be wise enough to follow King’s example. For his focus, contrary to popular belief, was not on political triumphs but on the enduring struggle to reimagine American society beyond its roots in racial terror and economic subjugation. King’s dreams of a “beloved community” were embedded in a pragmatic understanding that institutions in American society and, indeed, around the world would have to be remade. This revolutionary vision rested on an appreciation that black folks’ culture, far from being some kind of racial Achilles’ heel, served as a ballast that helped African Americans survive the still-unfolding drama from slavery to freedom.