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Monday, September 15, 2014

THE MYTH THAT IS CRIPPLING BLACK AMERICA

William Raspberry, Washington Post columnist, 1990

A myth has crippled black America: the myth that racism is the dominant influence in our lives.

Two things flow from this racism-is-all myth: (1) it puts the solution to our difficulties outside our control, and (2) it encourages the fallacy that attacking racism as the source of our problems is the same as attacking our problems. As a result, we expend precious time, energy and imagination searching (always successfully) for evidence of racism—while our problems grow worse.

Consider poor whites. They can vote, live where their money permits them, eat where their appetites dictate, work at jobs for which their skills qualify them. They have their civil rights. And yet they are in desperate straits. It doesn’t seem to occur to us that the full grant of our civil rights would leave black Americans in about the same situations that poor whites are now in.

There is another minority whose situation may be more instructive. I refer to Asian-Americans. Neither the newly arrived Southeast Asians nor the earlier-arriving Japanese Americans, Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans are loved by white people. But these groups have spent little time and energy proving that white people don’t love them.

While our myth is that racism accounts for our shortcomings, their belief is that their own efforts can make the difference, no matter what white people think. They have looked at America like children with their noses pressed to the candy-store window: if only I could get in there, boy, could I have a good time. And when they get in, they work and study and save and create businesses and jobs for their people.

But we, born inside the candy store, focus on only the mal-distribution of the candy. Our myth tells us to become consumers when victories accrue to the producers.

This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Following the Civil War, free blacks and former slaves, though denied many of the rights we take for granted today, were entrepreneurs, artisans and inventors, shopkeepers and industrialists, bankers and financiers. the first female millionaire in America was a black woman, Madame C.J. Walker. Fifty years after emancipation, in 1913, as Robert L. Woodson observed in his book On the Road to Economic Freedom, black America “could take pride in owning 550,000 homes, 40,000 businesses and 937,000 farms.”
What has happened since? Hundreds of thriving restaurants, hotels, service outlets and entertainment centers have gone out of business because we preferred integration to supporting our own painstakingly established institutions. Indeed, aside from black churches and black colleges, little remains to show for that entrepreneurial spurt early this century.

We over-learned the lessons of the civil-rights era. That courageous movement enabled black Americans, for the first time, to enjoy the full panoply of civil rights. Unfortunately, the movement also taught us to see in terms of civil rights things that might more properly be achieved by enterprise and exertion.

Even when we speak of business now, our focus is on set-asides and affirmative action. We insist on a fair distribution of jobs in businesses created and run by others. But the emphasis ought to be on getting more of us into our own businesses, creating jobs ourselves and encouraging an entrepreneurial approach to our social problems.

I am not suggesting that government has no role. But we need government-backed programs that, instead of merely making our problems more bearable, help solve them. We are forever talking about the lack of day care as an impediment to work for welfare families. Why aren’t we lobbying for legislation to permit some of the money now spent on public welfare to be used to establish child-care centers? Why aren’t we looking for ways to create small jitney services to transport job seekers to distant jobs?

I leave to others the specifics. I will tell you only that increasing the economic success of black America can be done]and is being done by an encouraging number of us. When people believe that their problems can be solved, they tend to get busy solving them.

On the other hand, when people believe that their problems are beyond solution, they tend to position themselves so as to avoid blame. Take the woeful inadequacy of education in the predominantly black central cities. Does the black leadership see the ascendancy of black teachers, school administrators and politicians as an asset to be used in improving those dreadful schools? Rarely. You are more likely to hear charges of white abandonment, white resistance to integration, white conspiracies to isolate black children, even when the schools are officially desegregated. In short, white people are accused of being responsible for the problem. But if the youngsters manage to survive those awful school systems and achieve success, leaders want to claim credit. They don’t hesitate to attribute that success to the glorious civil-rights movement.

Many of us, of course, aren’t succeeding. Teenage pregnancy, dope trafficking, lawlessness and lack of ambition make many doubt that we ever will succeed. But when we see failure among our people and have reason to believe the failure is permanent, our leaders say racism is the culprit. Mistakenly, we credit black pride for our successes and blame prejudice for our shortfalls. My simple suggestion is that we stop using the plight of the black underclass as a scourge for beating up on white racists.

I used to play a little game in which I’d tell black leaders: ”Let’s say you’re exactly right, that racism is the overriding reason for our situation and that an all-out attack on racism is our most pressing priority.”

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