Sunday, August 01, 2004

Making the Right Choices

A fine column by Henry Louis Gates. I find myself fighting the urge to quote the entire thing verbatim.

"Go into any inner-city neighborhood," Barack Obama said in his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, "and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." In a speech filled with rousing applause lines, it was a line that many black Democratic delegates found especially galvanizing. Not just because they agreed, but because it was a home truth they'd seldom heard a politician say out loud.

Why has it been so difficult for black leaders to say such things in public, without being pilloried for "blaming the victim"? Why the huge flap over Bill Cosby's insistence that black teenagers do their homework, stay in school, master standard English and stop having babies? Any black person who frequents a barbershop or beauty parlor in the inner city knows that Mr. Cosby was only echoing sentiments widely shared in the black community.

"If our people studied calculus like we studied basketball," my father, age 91, once remarked as we drove past a packed inner-city basketball court at midnight, "we'd be running M.I.T." When my brother and I were growing up in the 50's, our parents convinced us that the "blackest" thing that we could be was a doctor or a lawyer. We admired Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, but our real heroes were people like Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Benjamin Mays and Mary McLeod Bethune.


It's important to talk about life chances - about the constricted set of opportunities that poverty brings. But to treat black people as if they're helpless rag dolls swept up and buffeted by vast social trends - as if they had no say in the shaping of their lives - is a supreme act of condescension. Only 50 percent of all black children graduate from high school; an estimated 64 percent of black teenage girls will become pregnant. (Black children raised by female "householders" are five times as likely to live in poverty as those raised by married couples.) Are white racists forcing black teenagers to drop out of school or to have babies?

Mr. Cosby got a lot of flak for complaining about children who couldn't speak standard English. Yet it isn't a derogation of the black vernacular - a marvelously rich and inventive tongue - to point out that there's a language of the marketplace, too, and learning to speak that language has generally been a precondition for economic success, whoever you are. When we let black youth become monolingual, we've limited their imaginative and economic possibilities.

These issues can be ticklish, no question, but they're badly served by silence or squeamishness. Mr. Obama showed how to get the balance right. We've got to create as many opportunities as we can for the worst-off - and "make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life." But values matter, too. We can't talk about the choices people have without talking about the choices people make.
I couldn't agree more. The dangerous thing about repeatedly telling people that they are helpless victims, that nothing whatsoever is their fault, and that no responsibility for changing their situation lies on their own shoulders, is that it encourages a fatalism that serves to perpetuate the state of failure. Why try when you're already sure you're going to fall short?

It may often actually be the case that we engage in self deception when we tell ourselves that we'd succeed if we only tried harder, but even if that message were to lead to unexpected success in only 1 out of 10 cases, that would still mean millions of people reaching heights they otherwise might not have imagined for themselves. As such, that positive attitude ought to be encouraged at every opportunity, rather than trying to sell those who are in difficult straits on a message of helplessness. Whatever happened to "We shall overcome?" Or, to put it another way, "If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength!" Are blacks such weaklings that they cannot better their lot without government assistance?