Friday, August 13, 2010

Our Race, Our Selves

John McWhorter writes what might be the most honest and yet most depressing critique of the state of the black community , like ever.

In a review of a book by Amy Wax, he basically says that African Americans have spent too much time focusing on government programs and the legacy of racism than in trying to solve the problems that are plauging the community, such as poverty.

There is a belief among many African Americans as well as not a few liberals, that it is racism that hold us back. The belief continues that if only America spent more money on the black community through increased government spending, then the problems facing African Americans would be solved. McWhorter provides a living example of how simply more money won't work:
In 1987, a rich philanthropist in Philadelphia “adopted” 112 inner-city sixth-graders, most of them from broken homes. He guaranteed them a fully-funded education through college if the kids would refrain from drugs, unwed parenthood, and crime. He even provided tutors, workshops, after-school programs, summer programs, and counselors when trouble arose. Forty-five of the kids never made it through high school. Thirteen years later, of the sixty-seven boys, nineteen were felons; the forty-five girls had sixty-three total children, and more than half had their babies before the age of eighteen. Crucially, this was not surprising: The reason was culture. These children had been nurtured in communities with different norms than those that reign in Scarsdale.

Of course, no one wants to talk about culture. It's far easier to talk about race than it is about the cultural patterns that keep African Americans down. McWhorter gets right to the point that the best way for blacks to not be poor is not have babies before marriage:

One of the most sobering observations made by Wax comes in the form of a disarmingly simple calculus presented first by Isabel Sawhill and Christopher Jencks. If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view. In 2004, the poverty rate among blacks who followed that formula was less than 6 percent, as opposed to the overall rate of 24.7 percent. Even after hearing the earnest musings about employers who are less interested in people with names like Tomika, no one can gainsay the simple truth of that advice. Crucially, neither bigotry nor even structural racism can explain why an individual does not live up to it.

So, why are African Americans so afraid to talk about culture? Why are we more enamoured with the radical ala Jeremiah Wright?

I think the answers are many, but here are two points.

First, talk of culture seems like blaming the victim and ignoring racial prejudice, which does still occur. Second, culture tends to be associated with conservatives and most African Americans tend think that conservatives either are indifferent or hostile to the interests of blacks. White conservatives have not helped when they talk about culture and family in relation to African Americans, but then don't seem to do anything to help change the situation. The common refrain of conservatives is to talk about the evils of big government, but then do nothing to help with civil society.

So what can change the situation? Well, African Americans are going to have to talk culture more seriously and realize that government can do somethings, but it can't change people's hearts. As Wax notes:

The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.

I can remember my mother making poster boards of numbers and letters so that I would learn both before I entered kindergarten. That's the type of parenting that will help a kid succeed.

Government has to play some role in helping lift people out of poverty. I know some will chafe at that notion, but we do need to have some safety nets to protect people from the ravages of poverty. But to help someone thrive, we need more. Conservativism has always believed that society is made up of institutions: businesses, government, the church, the family. I think what is needed is a revival of black civic culture. Churches and other civic groups need step up and help shape and form individuals to learn how to respect each other and not be making babies when they are no more than babies themselves. Many black churches are already doing this, but there needs to be more. If White conservatives really believe in civil society, then they will put their money where their mouth is
and fund initiatives that will help the black family. If you want to see an example of conservatives trying to use a conservative approach to solve social issues, one might want to at the Big Society initiative from the Conservative Party in the UK.

At the end of the day, though, it is up to African Americans to do deal with our own issues. We have to be willing to want to reduce out-of-wedlock births, and the crushing poverty rate and not dilly-dally. It's time for us to heal ourselves.

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