I was recently engaged in a conversation concerning race and racism with a white male. The debate highlighted personal responsibility for the Black community vs. laying blame on slavery and the “system”. This debate amongst the Black community dates back to the reconstruction era and the writings of David Walker (David Walker’s Appeal) vs. Booker T. Washington, right through to Bill Cosby (The Pound Cake speech), vs. Judge Bruce Wright (Black Robes, White Justice). Does it all come down to a historical and contemporary imperative, or are Blacks simply using the “White Man” as a crutch to avoid personal responsibility for their failures and shortcomings? Does one argument garner more social acceptance?
It is this writers opinion that the media has a tendency to oversimplify complex issues for the sake of directing an agenda while providing easier digestion on the part of the public. Having said that, i do not believe that the debate about personal responsibility vs. perpetual racism is as cut and dry as many would have us to believe. I strongly advocate that both issues should be addressed simultaneously.
Black America has fallen into a trap. Many of us accept the most brutal of life’s circumstances without any desire for growth and development. As hip-hop artists Talib Kwali and Mos Def point out, “ [Blacks are] Not strong, only aggressive. Not free, we’re only licensed. Not compassionate, only polite. Now who’s the nicest? Not good, but well behaved. Chasin’ after death so we can call ourselves brave. Still livin’ like mental slaves...” (Black Star, Thieves in the Night. 2001). We have fallen in love with our own ignorance. We have fallen out of love with ourselves. We often perpetuate our own circumstances by refusing to take charge of our own lives. Instead, we continue to blame White America for our collective fate. If we were that collective in our overall mentality, we would not endure the genocide that we have been reaping upon ourselves for the better half of thirty years now.
But let’s be fair. Black America did not reach this point all by themselves. Before Europeans trampled Africa for her people and natural resources, there was no such thing as Black America. Whites took the African to America for so long, now we’re just African-Americans. The personal responsibility argument, by itself, negates the historical circumstances that underline Black America’s current state of emergency.
The reason people (Black and White) have been historically quick to say, “think beyond slavery”, is that very few people have studied the brutality and totality of the institution of slavery. Very few people appreciate the implications behind 400 years of forced servitude (+ 65 years of legalized racism and segregation). Whites have always favored the personal responsibility argument within the Black community, because it absolves them from any personal responsibility. Therefor, the argument to put our slavery behind us is something we have always been encouraged to do. White America should not be so quick to say, “That was not me” without first learning the real horrors of slavery and the long lasting effects it has had on the moral fiber of the US.
I have seen what a class in African-American Studies can do to a white person. I have seen their sensitivity burst into hateful outbursts toward the instructor just before storming out, never to be seen again. Whether those students should have felt responsible or not, many of them did (based on later conversations). If Black America should be forced to deal with our own shortcomings, White America should have to face their own dark history with a brutal honesty that PBS, the History Channel, and the public schools have yet to deliver. We both have work to do, and the work starts with an education regarding the implications of slavery-for everyone.
Delma Jackson III