The United States has become a legalistic society. It has always been more legalistic than some countries, for various reasons, but it’s become even more legalistic over time. Earlier last century, most problems weren’t dealt with through the legal system.
This is why it’s hard to compare present data to past data. A lot of criminal behavior never led people to the court system, much less prison. And even when people ended up in court, judges used to have more legal freedom to be lenient, unlike our present mandatory sentencing. This meant that there wasn’t much in the way of mass incarceration in the US until this past half century or so.
Take juvenile delinquents as a key example, far from a new problem. As urbanization took hold in the late 1800s and into the early Cold War, there was moral panic about teenagers being out of control, turning into criminals, and joining gangs. But most kids with problems didn’t end up facing a judge.
There were community institutions that figured out ways to deal with problems without recourse to legal punishment. Kids might get sent to family members who lived elsewhere, to a group home for delinquents, to reform school, etc. Or they might simply be made to do community service or pay restitution. But none of it would end up as a criminal record, likely not even getting reported in the local newspaper. It would have been dealt with quietly, informally, and privately.
There were cultural reasons at the time. It was assumed that kids weren’t fully responsible for their own behavior, as kids were treated as dependents of adults. The problems of kids was seen as the failure of parenting or social conditions. There was little tolerance for bad behavior in many ways at that time, but also society was much more forgiving. A kid would have to commit many major crimes before he would end up in a court and in jail.
The downside of this is that individuals had less rights, as people were seen more in social terms. It was easier to institutionalize people back then. Or if a girl got pregnant, her family would make sure she was sent somewhere else and not bring shame on the family. Juveniles were considered dependents until well into young adulthood. A 21 year old woman who was accused of prostitution, even if false, could find herself sent off to a group home for girls. Early 20th century childhood was highly protected and extended, although far different from present helicopter parenting.
Parents were considered legally and morally responsible for their kids, in a way that is not seen these days. Individual rights were still rather limited in the early 20th century. But there was also a sense of community responsibility for members of the community. It was accepted that social conditions shaped and influenced individuals. So, to change individual behavior, it was understood that social conditions needed to be changed for the individual.
In present American society, we see the past as socially oppressive and it was. We now put the individual before the community. We think it’s wrong to send juvenile delinquents off to reform schools, to separate the low IQ kids from other students, and to institutionalize the mentally ill. But this typically means we simply ignore problems.
The kid with severe autism in a normal classroom is not getting a good education or being prepared for adult life in any kind of way, although there is merit to his being socialized with his neurotypical peers. The mentally ill being homeless instead of in institutions is not exactly an improvement, even considering the problems of psychiatric institutions in the past. And the world is not a better place for our warehousing problematic people in prisons.
Our society has been pushed to an extreme. It would be nice to see more balance between rights of individuals and the responsibility of communities. But that isn’t possible if our main options are to either ignore problems or turn to the legal system. This is a difficult challenge, as increasing urbanization and industrialization have led to the breakdown of communities. There was a much stronger social fabric a century ago. It’s harder for us to turn to community solutions now since communities no longer function as they once did. And growing inequality has undermined the culture of trust that is necessary for well-functioning community.
Yet it’s obvious, according to polls, that most Americans realize that social problems require social solutions. But our political system hasn’t caught up with this social reality. Or rather the ruling class would rather not admit to it.
“Now to be clear, I do believe that every person should play a proactive role in their own success, health, and overall well-being. The part that bothers me is that many people seem to think that black people cannot do this and exercise our right as American citizens to express displeasure with policy and practices. I would argue that being civically engaged is apart of taking personal responsibility. However, according to many right wing pundits—and increasingly people within our own community—any black person who requests a government action is asking for “free stuff” or trying to keep from taking care of our own business.”
~ Black People and The Burden Of “Personal Responsibility”, carrefourblog
We need to move past this false dichotomy.
More importantly, we need to move beyond the false accusation against poor minorities. I suspect that the average poor minority works harder and is forced to take more personal responsibility than is the average white, especially the average middle-to-upper class white who tends to make these kinds of judgments from the position of white privilege.
Also, minorities promoting social justice are among the most hardworking people around. That is no easy struggle to be involved in. Black leaders and black parents embrace the ideals of personal responsibility and hard work. They talk about it in speeches and sermons, but the best of them understand this in the context of a centuries-old structural racism. That latter part gets lost in translation when the more privileged take up this judgment, including blacks in privileged positions like Cosby.
Blacks worker harder to accomplish less than whites on a daily basis. If such ideals could solve the problems of structural racism in how it impacts individuals, structural racism would have ended a long time ago. We all need to take both personal and shared responsibility for the problems of structural racism. It can’t be solved alone by the victims of racial oppression and prejudice. However, working together, we can all be part of the solution.
In saying this, I am not trying to deny or gloss over the fact that a lot of Black people are into some bad shit. Youth are killing each other, and people desperate to survive are preying on each other. Too many Black men are into the male supremacy that is rife in this society, and too many Black women combine U.S. society’s “look out for #1” ethos with accepting its outlook on women’s place. Black people do need to get out of all this shit. They need to move from being victimized by this system to fighting to get rid of this system. They, along with basic masses of all nationalities and people from other backgrounds too, need to come forward as emancipators of humanity.
But lectures about personal responsibility won’t help make that happen. This will stand in the way of people getting what’s the real source of the problems they face, and what’s the real way to get out from under them. People don’t see any way out and can begin to think it’s because they’re fucked up. And it is a fact: Black people, as a people, are not going to “make it” under this system. The only real hope for the masses in their millions is carving out a radically different future thru revolution and changing themselves as they fight to bring a whole new world into being.
There is scant empirical evidence that demonstrates a lack of work ethic among black men. To be officially counted as unemployed, onehas to be actively pursuing a job. The black maleunemployment rate is typically about twice thewhite unemployment rate. In 2007, 9.1 percent ofblack males were officially unemployed; yet, only4.2 percent of white males were unemployed. Onecan be certain that thereare many more black mendesiring work than arecurrently employed in thisjob market.
“It’s funny, the American dream is sort of steeped in this myth of work hard, be self-sufficient and push yourself forward, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that kind of thing. But much of the wealth in this country was not built on that, in no way, fashion or form,” Williams says.
“The foundation of American White supremacy sits tenuously on a rickety base of lies and deceptions about how Whites gained their wealth and status. A century and a half after slavery the median wealth of White families is $100,000; for Black families, it’s $5,000. The belief that Whites achieved this 20-1 wealth advantage by HARD WORK is an absurd and a historical fantasy.”
Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”
One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.
Whites often don’t realize that slavery didn’t truly end until long after the Civil War. Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for his devastating history, “Slavery by Another Name,” that recounted how U.S. Steel and other American corporations used black slave labor well into the 20th century, through “convict leasing.” Blacks would be arrested for made-up offenses such as “vagrancy” and then would be leased to companies as slave laborers.
[ . . . . ]
WE all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We’re in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start — a facet of white privilege — and pretend that the competition is now fair?
Of course not. If we whites are ahead in the relay race of life, shouldn’t we acknowledge that we got this lead in part by generations of oppression? Aren’t we big enough to make amends by trying to spread opportunity, by providing disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids?
Can’t we at least acknowledge that in the case of race, William Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Yeah, he’s black. Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think anybody wants to suppress the story of an undersize, pudgy engineering nerd who made himself into a gritty, overachieving captain on a Big Ten champion team and who is also black. I bet the national media would love a story like that. I suspect they just don’t see it.
The gulf in physical talent between Novak and other players was glaring. Now, look at Morgan, with his gigantic biceps. If you don’t know him and you are using a simple heuristic, you probably think he’s a pretty good athletic talent, even if if is a little short. You don’t think about the fact that he gained that muscle after intense weight training. (Announcers never mention it.) And so one player is surrounded by a narrative of hustle, smarts, and toughness, and another player with the exact same qualities is not.
The situation is far better than it was three or four decades ago, when announcers would liken the skills of black players to animals. Today, they have some awareness of racial stereotyping. What’s left, I think, is far more characteristic of how racial bias typically works. Bad intent does not come into play. White people simply have certain preconceptions, and preconceptions make you see the things you expect to see and miss the things you don’t.
The fact is that I can travel through east Baltimore or any urban inner city (BLACK) neighborhood for under 10 minutes and introduce you to the hardest-working Americans in our country. I know a guy that guts houses for $50 a day, a rack of uncertified tax preparers, too many single moms with triple jobs, some freelance freelancers, infinite party promoters, squeegee kids, basement caterers, back-alley auto mechanics, dudes of all ages selling bottled water and a collection of Mr. Fix Its, all living in a two-block radius. We are all American dream chasing, all trying to start our own business, all working our asses off.
Legal or illegal, the inner cities of America are our nation’s hotbed of side hustles. Even people like me with college degrees need multiple streams of revenue to survive, and I gained that work ethic from living in the inner city. Seeing my grandma work 10-hour shifts showed me I could do the same.
There are a million grinding grandmas like mine, and Darnell Baylor isn’t the only person who gets paid for 40 hours a week but works 80. Every person I know is on his schedule and gained that work ethic from the inner city. If Duncan were exposed to a different way of life, he’d probably be running a Fortune 500 company.
Lenny and Loraine didn’t beg for drugs, they performed for them. And Lenny continued to work hard years after his crack addiction faded. The Candy and Cigarette lady should be celebrated for her innovation. And I’d bet that even if the cops rushed and ended her industry, work ethic and creativity would lead to her creating a new one.
She still works hard but will be only judged for not following traditional rules, which is unfortunate because there are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society. To me that poses a bigger question. Why employment inequality for African-Americans is always identified as laziness?
But even if we ignore the unfairness of racial profiling, not to mention its blatantly unconstitutional nature given that whole Equal Protection Clause thing, sitting smack dab in the middle of the 14th Amendment — and even if we momentarily put aside the evidence that profiling is not justified by crime data, and can actually be counterproductive — several points have been overlooked by those who think they have either the moral or factual basis to lecture black folks about so-called pathologies in the black community. And they are points worth noting, because they indicate that not only are the Negrophobic critics of black America largely wrong about black folks (few of whom they actually know) and black communities (few of which they have ever actually spent time in), but even more interestingly, they appear to be ignoring a number of data points suggesting serious cultural rot in the white community, to which they might wish to turn their attention. Especially seeing as how they love to inveigh about “personal responsibility.” What better way for white people to take personal responsibility, after all, than to stop hectoring blacks and perhaps begin to clean up our own behavioral back yards?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying black folks shouldn’t take “personal responsibility” whatever that means, I’m saying black folks aren’t the ONLY ones who need to take some “personal” responsibility. And we certainly don’t have to be told the same thing over and over again like we are stoopid or children, or both. I don’t condone what Reverend Jesse Jackson was caught on tape saying about President Obama talking down to black folks but I understand.
Why are black folks the only ones being told they need to “take personal responsibility” for their actions? Black folks aren’t responsible for creating the current mess we find our country in. Why are black folks the only ones told they “need to stop making excuses and blaming others for their problems”. I don’t hear anyone telling democrats to stop making excuses for being whimps. I don’t hear anyone telling republicans to stop making excuses for being obstructionist. I don’t hear anyone (well almost) telling President Obama to stop making excuses.
Yet Obama had the gall to attempt selling these Morehouse men the following economic snake-oil. “You’re graduating into an improving job market,” he claimed. “You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.” Many of these African men do not have control over events within the labor market. There are entrenched racist, gendered and class-related employment barriers that are resistant to personal effort and responsibility on the part of these prospective racialized, despised and stereotyped jobseekers.
I look forward to the day when Obama will tell it like it is to ruling-class white men, that there’s no longer time for excuses for their promotion of institutional white supremacy (and other forms of oppression). Furthermore, I would like to see the display of intestinal fortitude on the part of the president in declaring to largely white graduating classes that they should not blame immigrants for taking away “their” jobs, social assistance or welfare recipients as the reason for high taxes or the capital gains tax as an impediment to job creation.
“His commencement address would have been more helpful if he affirmed those young leaders and then challenged them to use their skills to become vigorous and relentless fighters against racism, classism, sexism, economic and political exploitation. The dirty little ‘secret’ of his very own presidency is that he is the ultimate example of how constrained Black achievement really can be, if it is not accompanied by a vigorous fight against structural and institutional racism. . . .”
“Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.”
“But when the president speaks to the black community, there’s often a dive into the politics of personal responsibility,” he continued. “I cringe at that, as if effort and excuses have been the problem.”
“No,” Touré asserted. “It’s been structural racism.”
“The accumulated impact of historic discrimination and the advantages of white privilege and the systems perpetuate all that,” he continued. “Going into personal responsibility suggests you can make it if you try, and he knows it’s more complex than that.”
“I want our president this president, to tell America to tear down the American Berlin Wall that keeps black men separated from opportunity,” Touré concluded. “That sort of big brother-in-chief would get us closer to the mountain top.”
Leola Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., said the Obamas’ speeches “are actually not aimed at black people.”
“They’re actually for white people, liberals especially,” she said. Liberal bloggers were brimming with praise for Obama after the Morehouse speech. “It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”
Kevin Powell, an activist based in New York who travels the country encouraging black men to take responsibility for their lives, said he has no problem with Obama challenging the black community, but . . .
“You also have to challenge the system, just as you challenge the people. It’s not an either/or,” said Powell, president and founder of BK Nation, an organization focused on education and civic engagement.