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.
We should have been able to discuss this publicly without fear of validating an anti-black, neo-conservative slogan like "black victimology," or of engaging in the classic fallacy of blaming the victim. Such a discussion is, in fact, urgently needed because, frankly, if Barack Obama is elected president of the United States in about two weeks, the rest of the world, especially white Americans and recent immigrants, will view black poverty, poor performance in school, unemployment and dependency on the state with considerably less generosity than they do now.
We can debate the exact magnitude of these problems, but I do not believe any serious person who has interacted extensively in ghetto neighborhoods or with the ghetto poor will long contest the existence of these problems. More than this, these same troubling patterns seep far into the black working and middle class, as well. In short, I see too many young black people who are not committed to what it takes to succeed in the 21st century, educationally or in terms of their other personal choices—out-of-wedlock pregnancies and drug use, for example. It is this behavior and the culture that sustains them that concerns me.
For most people, this ghetto-fabulous culture, pursued into adulthood, is a prescription for failure, alienation and disillusionment. We must create a safe public space to discuss this problem.
Bear in mind, I do not extend the standard, up-right-moralizing critique of hip-hop or of hip-hop culture. The music and artists people listen to or view on television did not create ghetto poverty, gang violence or the scourge of drug addiction. Moreover, hip-hop has too may positive voices and represents too righteous a critique of society's failings and hypocrisies, to be unfairly pigeonholed or blamed.
Nor am I suggesting that anti-black prejudice, discrimination and racism are not important today. One only has to listen to the ugly words being shouted at a McCain-Palin rally to see the abundant evidence of a dangerous form and level of bigotry in America today. Sociological studies of discrimination and race stereotyping make it all too clear that serious and systematic bias still face blacks in the job market and in the housing market.
And I say all of this mindful of Lani Guinier's metaphor of the "miner's canary." That is, the problems we see in black culture are merely early and sometimes exaggerated versions of serious maladies in the larger culture and social fabric. Some of the traits of the ghetto-fabulous culture do not appear exclusively among black youth. There is plenty of evidence that American youth on the whole, not just African Americans, are falling behind many of their peers in scholastic performance worldwide. For now, however, the problem is dormant for the white middle class. It has "presented" in serious form for African Americans, and there is little time to waste.
As the transformation wrought by globalization intensifies, as the skill levels required for well-paying jobs rise, along with the increased mobility of capital, businesses, jobs and individual workers, only those who have positioned themselves well will thrive in the economy of the future. Individuals with low skills, questionable mastery of one language and even more doubtful attitudes about work should expect things to get much harder for them.
Yes, there remain "structural" constraints on black advancement. Yet, not one of these conditions warrants taking schooling and education lightly, getting pregnant as an unmarried teenager or slinging drugs for a quick wad of bills. Paris Hilton, heiress to one of the world's great fortunes, can afford to be an empty cool-pose idiot. The next generation of black youth cannot.
To be sure, it is critical for scholars and public intellectuals to challenge and debunk simplistic and hateful slogans of the well-funded, right-wing attack machine where black behavior and social inequality are concerned. Black victimology is just a racial epithet. We also better find the space, the commitment, the vocabulary and the ingenuity to take on our culture problem. The future depends on it.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. WATCH VIDEO