Frayed Bootstraps in the Black Mecca

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(AP Photo/W.A. Haarewood)
(AP Photo/W.A. Haarewood)

Early last year I was called for jury duty. I headed to the court building in downtown Atlanta, semi-grateful for the reprieve from admin meetings and hoping to get some grading done — until I wandered into the wrong courtroom and was stunned by what I saw. The room was completely filled with black males, mostly teenagers; all were awaiting hearings for one criminal charge or another.

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We hear in seemingly infinite detail about the over-incarceration of black men, it's one of those hard facts that pop up on that never-ending ticker-tape of bad racial news. But reading those numbers is not the same as looking at 40 or 50 young black men who are, if those statistics hold true, on their way to prison. I eventually found the right courtroom and actually got to leave after only an hour in the jury pool, but that scene troubled me for the rest of the day.

That vision came back to me earlier this month when I heard about Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington Sr. clearing the white people from his courtroom before delivering a stern lecture to the assemblage of young black defendants standing before him.

Arrington's message of responsibility and self-help dovetailed neatly with the themes of Bill Cosby's national "Call Outs" and that probably explains how the judge and the comic-turned-racial uplift preacher found themselves seated together in the auditorium of Benjamin E. Mays High School last Thursday night.On the surface, this could seem like more of Cosby's Booker T. Washington remix, but there were other dynamics at play. Atlanta is a city that has deliberately come to be seen as synonymous with black success, but the truth is that we are plagued by the same problems that afflict most American cities.

What sets us apart is that there is enough black success to essentially camouflage our 24.4 percent poverty rate and the fact over 40 percent of the children in the city are poor. Our schools perpetually rank among the worst in the country and the "Black Mecca" suffers from a crime rate that is among the highest for a city its size. The result is that Atlanta is two black cities: one in which people strive and another in which they struggle; one of subdivisions and another of projects. One that seems insulated from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and one that is defined by the opportunities that law yielded.

Those two cities share the common geography of Arrington's courtroom. He opened his event lamenting the fact that 95 percent of the young people who come before him are black. The other side of this story is that so are the police, the sheriffs, many of the lawyers and a good number of his fellow judges. Arrington himself is a highly regarded member of Atlanta's legal community and a bona fide Atlanta success story. He was raised by a domestic worker with less than a high school education and went on to found a successful legal practice and be elected to political office before being elevated to the bench. Onstage beside him were well over a dozen successful, well-educated African Americans whom he had mentored over the years.

Still, it wasn't hard to see where he was coming from. If my reaction to 30 seconds in the wrong courtroom was any measure, I doubt I could have lasted as long as he did before lashing out at that state of affairs.

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Cosby and Arrington spent the better part of two hours lambasting the 400 teens in the audience about the culture of irresponsibility that leads to unplanned pregnancy, high dropout rates and incarceration. They shared head-spinning anecdotes of family breakdown and criminality. One juvenile court judge talked of her dealings with mothers who keep their children out of school because they're too lazy to get up in the morning and put them on the bus.

It was nearly impossible not to be disturbed by Arrington's telling of a young man murdered over a drug debt while his grandmother pleaded with the killer for enough time to go to the bank. Cosby roused the crowd when he demanded that people "stop begging the government to make up for your bad parenting." After an hour, the auditorium grew Baptist-church hot and the parents in the audience echoed the action on stage with their shouts to "tell it" and "speak the truth." Even beyond the heat and the call-and-response, the event had the feel of a racial revival of sorts, where the sins were not gospel violations but civic failings and regret.

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"What kind of person," Cosby near-shouted, "tries to tell you that you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps." Toward the end of the event Cosby fulminated that "Negroes fought for their rights, Negroes marched" – part of his long-running indictment that "black people" seem to have lost all the good bequeathed to them by noble Negro ancestors.

Joe Louis, Althea Gibson — those were the kind of Negroes who knew what time it was, he suggested, and the current crop of slackers have simply dropped the ball. Whatever the implications of that statement, you weren't going to hear much dissent, not that night, not in that auditorium full of black degrees.

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The young people I spoke to afterward unanimously agreed that Cosby was "telling the truth," and one even went so far as to say that he would think twice before doing something that might shame his family or upset his mother. Parents shouted praise for Arrington and Cosby. Outside a cop told me, "This is the second time I've seen Cosby; he always brings the truth. I'm hoping that he can help make my job easier."

No one in their right mind could disagree with "the truth," but "truth" is precisely where things get complicated for these revivals. While self-help may be a virtue, it is not a policy. The "truth" is that the creation of the American middle class was the result of government initiatives like the G.I. Bill, the FDA and the National Highway Act, not any sepia-tinted mythology of immigrants and their bootstraps. It is possible to recognize the impact of racism without citing it as an "excuse" or claiming victim status.

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We know, or ought to know, by now that moral demands have always been the weakest form of social reform. Black crime declined precipitously in the mid 1990s not because people had been inspired by Hollywood A-listers' calls for self-respect, but because the economy was stronger.

Discussing the "truth" means acknowledging that human behavior is complicated and reckoning with the fact that poor circumstances generally yields poor outcomes. The "truth" is that we remember Joe Louis and Althea Gibson precisely because they were exceptional and the very rationale for black struggle in the 20th century was that racism robbed all but a handful of black people of a shot at that kind of success. If the black community of Cosby's recollection really was defined by Louises and Gibsons there would have been no need for a March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. could've lived a long life devoted to baptizing babies and raising money for the Ebenezer building fund.

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Part of Cosby's appeal derives from a certain tolerance in the black community for self-flagellation. We listen because, like most congregations, we secretly want to be told how bad our sins are. Lamenting black failure is nearly a national past time and Cosby falls into a long tradition of uplift preachers who see lots of individual trees but deny the existence of a forest.

It is difficult to get at this kind of complexity when we want a simple, empowering answer to a terrible problem and it must be incredibly challenging for a person who sees the horrific effects of the problem every day. But this is the difference between "the truth" and the whole truth.

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The point is that Judge Arrington was perfectly justified in closing off his courtroom and lecturing those young men. And he would be equally justified in issuing subpoenas to their parents and lecturing them, the principals of their failing schools, and the politicians who do not provide the resources for those schools. He can follow up with the police who are more likely to arrest young black males than their white counterparts and the employers who are less likely to hire them. In the name of equality, he should summon his considerable eloquence and talk until he has reduced them to the sweaty, remorseful sinners we know them to be and then conclude by summoning his judicial colleagues who hand those young men disproportionately long prison sentences when compared to whites who commit the same offenses. Because then – and only then – can we say that we are on the road to salvation.

William Jelani Cobb is associate professor of history at Spelman College and author of "The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays.

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