Thursday, July 10, 2003

Bob Herbert Commits Heresy

I never thought I'd see the day when Bob Herbert would say something that I actually agreed with, but that day has come. Certainly, people on the right like Dinesh D'Souza and John McWhorter have been saying this sort of thing for the longest time, but there's nothing like having one of "your own", i.e. a black liberal who has always toed the Democratic party line, telling it like it is.

Caroline Jhingory had been warned but she was still surprised � and hurt � when some of her lifelong friends turned on her the way they did.

Ms. Jhingory is a 22-year-old black woman from Washington, D.C., who went off to college a few years ago. "One of the connections I had with my friends back home was that we had always been sort of aspiring hip-hop artists and things like that," she said. "But we were young, you know, and I eventually woke up from la-la land and realized that I would have to get an education and a job, something a little more concrete than fantasies about the hip-hop underground."

She noticed that when she came home on visits from school, some of her friends treated her differently. "I don't know if it was out of jealousy or resentment or whatever," she said, "but they would actually say to me, `You're acting white now.' They'd say that. They'd say, `You act white.' Or, `You act proper.' "

Ms. Jhingory had come face to face with the dilemma that many black youngsters encounter as they try to improve their lives by studying, going to college and making other efforts to escape the swarming tentacles of poverty and ignorance. Old friends and sometimes even relatives may see those courageous efforts as a threat, and react bitterly.

"I knew that it would happen because other friends had told me it would happen," said Ms. Jhingory. "But I was surprised that it would happen with friends that I was so close to, people I had grown up with from the time I was maybe 6 or 7. I actually ended friendships because of comments like that. We just couldn't connect anymore because it was just a really negative situation."

I have no idea what the stats are, but I know this perverse peer pressure to do less than your best in scholarly and intellectual pursuits is holding back large numbers of black Americans, especially black boys and men.

What is even more interesting is that Brad DeLong has picked up on the article. I found this slightly surprising, not so much because he is a liberal, as because he is an economist, and as such the issue would seem to have been peripheral to his concerns. But then again, he does come from a social sciences background, so I guess one shouldn't be too surprised.

It would be interesting to have a forthright, no-holds barred discussion of this issue, but I fear that such a thing won't happen. The problem seems ready-made for those on the right who are itching to blame African-Americans for all the problems that befall them, while on the left there is the fear of annoying a major constitutuency, coupled with the notion that one should never "blame the victim." Nevertheless, the truth is that the problem is real - I have seen it with my own eyes, after all - and it does more than anything else to cancel out the hypothetical benefits that might accrue from affirmative action. Too many African-Americans seem to have an external locus of control when it comes to educational achievement, but there is nothing holding back a high-school student of lower middle-class parents from seeking out libraries on his own, or even buying himself a cheap copy of Rudin's "Principles of Mathematical Analysis" and studying it over the summer of graduation, as I did when I was 17. Where African-American education is concerned, for the most part, money is not the issue.