Last week I wrote a post titled “Transcending Race and Delusional Conservatives” outlining several ways that mainstream conservative thinking about race is wrong. (And I am coming at this as a conservative myself, mind you.) Today, in the Washington Post, Gary MacDougal wrote a column titled “Jeremiah Wright’s Wider Toll” which is one of the worst examples another conservative misconception about race that I have seen: the “if they would just get over it, they would be successful” meme. The premise of the column is that Jeremiah Wright’s worst offense is preaching a message of racial grievance which leads to a lack of personal responsibility and effort by those stuck in inner city communities.
Now, there is a grain of truth behind the idea that an emphasis on racial barriers can create the perception that it is not worth trying because failure is inevitable. It can also contribute to an inability to overcome normal setbacks and obstacles, since their presence may well be seen as evidence of the futility of trying to attain success as an African American. However, in the hands of many conservatives this relatively small factor in the disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks becomes the entire explanation for problems in black America. The thinking is that if African Americans would just let go of their anger and resentment, stop seeing themselves as victims and take responsibility for their own actions, African Americans would experience as much success as any other group in America.
There are many problems, fallacies and illogical assumptions with this line of thinking. I’ll start with the most obvious one as demonstrated by Mr. MacDougal’s column:
Imagine getting up each morning to go to work in a society that doesn’t want you, doesn’t respect you and seeks to hold you back. Your spiritual leader has told you this, after all. . . If this is the message you got from your mentor, would you expect that you could succeed? Would you try very hard, if at all?” [emphasis mine]
Well, gee, let’s see. Jeremiah Wright was, um, Barack Obama’s mentor. Hmmm. And from what we know about Rev. Wright’s church, it is filled with successful people. Heck, Oprah attended the church. Somehow, many people who attend the church hear and perhaps even agree with Rev. Wright’s view of race in American and yet they got an education, go to work and attain success.
This also gives lie to the simplistic “all black people need to do is stop being angry and bitter” in order to succeed trope which is common in many conservative circles. If this were the case, one would not find anger and bitterness among African Americans who have succeeded. They would have let go of it in order to attain their success, after all. Reality is that this is not at all true. Some of the most bitter African Americans I have ever known have been quite successful. While it may be unhealthy to spend your life being angry and bitter, letting go of racial anger and bitterness is quite obviously not a prerequisite for success.
Mr. MacDougal’s column pulls out another idea which is not only wrong, but which is a serious obstacle to overcoming real obstacles facing African Americans in the workplace:
I have encountered misguided community “leaders” like Wright who tell their followers, for example, that the job market is stacked against them”
The assumption, again, is that the job market is not in fact stacked against African American applicants. If only this were true. Multiple studies have found strong evidence of continuing discrimination in the job market, particularly for entry level jobs, against African American men. For a sampling of studies and experiments which for example demonstrate that a white man with a felony conviction is more likely to be hired for an entry level position than a law abiding African American man see here, here, here and here.
And it’s not only the job market where African Americans continue to face discrimination. My (black) husband has moved into 3 out of 4 of the places we have rented to live in sight unseen after it became clear while searching for an apartment 8 years ago that he was being told erroneously that there were no vacancies in places where I had already called to ask about available units. Research has found that our experience is not uncommon. For some samples, see here and here. I don’t have time to look up and link to all of them, but reputable studies have found clear evidence of discrimination in everything from mortgages to the price charged for cars to financing for loans.
Contrary to anything one would know from listening to most conservative writers and thinkers, the evidence of ongoing discrimination in the fundamentals of life: employment, housing and finance is clear, consistent and irrefutable. Which of course, is not to say that the persistence of racism is an excuse for poor personal choices (which isn’t what people like Wright teach anyways). However, it seems profoundly dishonest, convenient and illogical to insist that it is the discussion of the persistence of racism which is the problem rather than the racism itself.
In addition, the continual harping on issues like affirmative action compared with the virtual silence about the persistence of illegal forms of racism is morally indefensible. At best it is evidence of a huge blind spot caused by foolishly wishful thinking. Which leads to yet another example of insupportable thinking which appears in Mr. MacDougal’s article:
I also recall a conversation I had during a visit to the maximum-security prison in Joliet, Ill. As I sat in the library there, talking with three men about why they were incarcerated, one man said: “Look around this room — almost everybody here is black. This is white man’s genocide. You put us in here to keep us down.” Where would this 20-something black man, or other relatively uneducated young people, get such an idea? From the vitriol spewed by the Rev. Wrights of this world.”
Now, I certainly disagree with this young man’s assessment of the cause and meaning of the disproportionate imprisonment of black men. However, it is foolish and condescending in the extreme to think that a young black man would not be able to look at the world around him and come to his own conclusions about the place of black men in our society without the help of people like Jeremiah Wright. White people need studies to really see how pervasive and persistent discrimination is (and even then we mostly ignore it). African Americans LIVE with discrimination – no study needed.
Years ago, I was friends with an African American woman who told me that until she married her husband (a very successful businessman in his late 40s), she hadn’t realized how difficult it was for an African American man to succeed. She told me that the problems she faced as a black woman were much less serious than the ones she saw her husband deal with all the time. Black men, whether failing or succeeding, don’t need the Jeremiah Wrights of the world to tell them that they are in a disadvantaged position due simply to the skin they walk around in. It’s their life. They already know it.
Add onto the very real problems of racial discrimination the ongoing effects of the damage which has been done to African Americans over the centuries, and it is not too hard to see why we would have a problem with a black underclass whether Jeremiah Wright was preaching his version of black liberation theology or not. I can agree, that this sort of preaching can be unhelpful. However, this is not a new problem. Rather it is a conversation which goes back to Reconstruction. How do we deal with, speak out against and change the realities of racial inequality and discrimination without undermining the hope and drive needed for any person to succeed in America? Insisting that the answer is simply not to have the conversation at all, may be a good way for people to avoid having to deal with uncomfortable truths. However, it doesn’t bring us any closer to the day when we will not even need to have these conversations.