5.27.2014

Race in America

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Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter says "Pull your pants up."  Actor and comedian Bill Cosby says "Come on, people."  And, this past, week, ESPN pundit Stephen A. Smith said, "Educate yourself, work hard."   

Ta-Nehisi Coates, columnist at The Atlantic, pushes back on this:

http://markcubanblog.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2014/05/Untitled-2-470x358.jpg"One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance."

I am a child of industrious Asian immigrants, so the weighting of individual responsibility over systemic disparity is appealing.  Not that my parents didn't value or participate in broader social causes.  But the overriding life message they conveyed, through word and mostly deed, was: put your head down, work your tail off, and nothing else matters. 

Even if this worldview isn't coursing through your blood, you can see its appeal.  Changing laws, changing others' biases, and changing a whole society is daunting work.  It seems cleaner and easier to just focus on what I can control, which is my own ability to stay out of trouble and exert myself to the nth. 

On the other hand, the opposite can seem true as well.  When we diagnose the problem as "out there in the world," we can absolve ourselves of the hard work we need to put in to succeed in that world, and avoid the crushing possibility of trying and failing and having no one to blame but ourselves. 

Of course, both sides are right, when it comes to life in general and specifically as it relates to the experience of blacks in this country.  This nation has harbored systemic and insidious prejudices that continue to inflict damage into the present day.  For a country that prides itself on the notion that anyone can succeed, it is an uncomfortable truth that your chance of success depends heavily on your skin color and zip code.  It is even more uncomfortable to think that both our own personal biases and our own government's institutional policies are what have dug so deep a hole.  

Different people will always have different chances of success, and that is fine.  But I cannot accept such a tilted playing field as what we have now.  The solution is to work at all levels to level that playing field, which involves action in the realms of politics, economics, religion, health care, housing, and the list goes on. 

And, the solution is also personal.  It is to encourage those for whom the playing field is adversely tilted that it is still possible, though it will take exceptional determination and effort, to succeed in life.  There is no special pathology that dooms you to failure.  Nor is there progress without personal effort. 

To say only that all we need is hard work and determination is to minimize the wounds inflicted by past and present racism.  But to focus exclusively on "fixing the system" is to minimize the importance of personal responsibility and individual effort.  We need both.  We need to hear and heed both Stephen A. and TNC. 
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