Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sometimes It's Better To Keep Your Mouth Shut....

The Washington Post ran an editorial by Gary MacDougal on race relations that gets off to a weak start:
It is easy to be outraged by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's abhorrent remarks, whether accusing our country of willfully spreading AIDS or being deserving of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Okay... so who's actually outraged by Jeremiah Wright's comments about AIDS? Did anybody thump their fist against the table, demanding to know, "How could he think such a thing?" Or did they have more or less the same reaction as to John McCain's woeful ignorance on vaccinations - which suggest that the government is knowingly spreading an "autism epidemic" and is covering up the facts. If you prefer, we can stick with AIDS - if you want to convince the world that your goal isn't to spread AIDS, perhaps you should do better than advancing abstinence education as the front-line AIDS prevention program for Africa, and supporting failed abstinence education policies in U.S. schools.
Q: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”
There are other Republicans who make McCain look informed on these subjects. If you listen to that type of claptrap and come away with the idea that the Republican Party doesn't care about the spread of AIDS, or is deliberately spreading misinformation that may contribute to the spread of AIDS, you're making the mistake of attributing to evil something that can be explained by stupidity. And yes, all of these statements - Wright's, McCain's and Senator Frist's, are outrageous, but Wright's AIDS comments seem peripheral to the outrage directed at him.

So what about "being deserving of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks"? Yes, there's been outrage over Wright's remarks. But fundamentally, they're no different from those of many white religious leaders - largely 'conservative'-branded religious leaders. Active voice versus passive voice.

Am I being unfair? MacDougal said, "It is easy to be outraged" - and it's always easy to be outraged. And if you're the sort who turns off your brain the moment you hear something that "outrages" you, perhaps you don't need to consider the comparably outrageous statements made by John McCain and the preachers he actively embraces in his bid for the White House.
But Wright has done more, and worse, than tarnish Obama's presidential campaign.

Consider the corrosive effect Wright and others like him have on their communities as they rob thousands of listeners of the American dream: hope that through their hard work they can have better lives.
While I have nothing against wearing your politics on your sleeve, two paragraphs into the editorial, is there any doubt remaining that the editorial was written by a rich white guy? The type of person who thinks that the entire African American community has some sort of hive mind, embracing victimhood based solely on the rhetoric of preachers? There's no sin in recognizing the corrosive effect of "race men". But when you elide the reasons why the words of the race men resonate, or suggest that but for words of negativity African Americans would realize "how good they really have it," well, you give yourself away.
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. With powerful rhetoric, Wright has asserted, for instance, that white America sees black women as useful only for their bodies. 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?
Okay... so the reason that the "prominent black professionals" that attend Wright's church have achieved both educationally and professionally is... he's convinced them that there's no reason to go to work in the morning? Poor Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, totally stripped of ambition?

MacDougal also suggests that making statements about hurdles (real or imagined) imposed by society are the beginning and end of the story. I haven't delved into Wright's sermons, but I have heard about one of his more famous themes - "the audacity of hope". It's easy to caricature Wright based upon a few sound bites. But perhaps the reason so many successful African Americans attended Wright's services was because he inspired them to strive and succeed despite all obstacles.
Through my work with the Illinois governor's task force on human services reform and its efforts to reduce welfare dependency, I have encountered misguided community "leaders" like Wright who tell their followers, for example, that the job market is stacked against them and that the jobs that are available aren't good enough - that they are entitled to more. The underlying message: You can't win because of who you are, regardless of what you do.
Okay - my standard challenge: Name one. Just one. I won't hold my breath.
I have attended positively focused black church services, and I know that the Rev. Wright does not speak for a monolithic black church.
You figured that out all by yourself? You think that's something that needs to be explained?
But 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.
Good for MacDougal. He was in a prison, talking to a group of inmates, and didn't even notice that the prison population was largely African American until somebody pointed it out to him.

We're in Thomas Friedman "taxi driver" territory here - a dubious anecdote that is impossible to verify, that conveniently just happens to be 100% consistent with the author's argument. It's a safe bet that I've talked to a lot more African Americans tangled up in the criminal justice system than Mr. MacDougal, and I've not once heard a claim of "white man's genocide". Nor anything even slightly resembling a claim of "white man's genocide".

Now, that's not to say that I haven't heard claims that sentencing policies have had a disproportionate effect on the African American community, due to more severe sentencing for crack as compared to an equivalent quantity of powder cocaine. It's not to say that there isn't an argument that law enforcement is much more diligent about rounding up street dealers (who happen to be disproportionately African American) as opposed to drug dealers who work inside private parties or workplace settings, a population of drug dealers that is much more likely to be white. (The latter group is much harder to detect and catch, so this is a sensible use of limited manpower.) There's also an argument that law enforcement is not willing to put enough pressure on drug dealing in poor communities, often African American communities, to result in a shift of drug activity to other areas of the city. And there's the fact that the white guys from the suburbs who buy drugs are rarely picked up and prosecuted along with the street dealers. Should MacDougal ever find the time to engage these prisoners past the level of the sound bite, he will probably find a lot more nuance in their views than is convenient to his piece.

But really, "Where would ... relatively uneducated young people, get such an idea?" MacDougal thinks the problem is that they're spending too much time in church? It isn't possible that he looked around his own community, saw the violence, crime level, poverty, and de facto segregation, and drew a few inferences from that?
The black middle class has grown in recent decades, enabling more and more African Americans to move out of cities and into the suburbs. This exodus in pursuit of better schools and crime-free neighborhoods is understandable; in many areas, though, inner cities have been left with a shortage of middle-class role models and community leaders.
That's another argument that bothers me. That somehow, African Americans who succeed "owe it to their communities" to live in impoverished areas and serve as role models. You would think MacDougal was unaware that many successful African Americans have never lived in the inner city. Why is it only African American communities that have this dire need for "middle-class role models and community leaders"? I don't think MacDougal would have any great difficulty finding and moving into an impoverished white community to serve as a "role model" - when should I expect his "change of address" card?
In the old days, Chicago's South Side, called Bronzeville, was a vibrant community anchored by black doctors, lawyers and businesses. It produced entertainers such as Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.
Ah, yes... The good old days. What could possibly have changed between "the old days" and the present that might have resulted in wealthy, successful African Americans moving out of de jure segregated communities and into the suburbs? Well, Dinah Washington died in 1963, and Nat King Cole died in 1965... so maybe, just maybe, something happened right around 1964 that affected where African Americans worked and lived.
Today, the South Side is a place where some Chicagoans refuse to venture at night. Productive employment is sorely lacking, and on many streets, drug dealing and loitering still abound.
So roll in a sufficient police presence to get that "drug dealing and loitering" off the street. Or is it that you don't actually want the drug dealing to move out of that community (and into another).
In cities across America, blacks have been left behind in dangerous neighborhoods with poor schools. Often, they must leave their neighborhoods to achieve economic self-sufficiency but face barriers to successful employment.
Okay, so after leaving their communities, African Americans "face barriers to successful employment"? MacDougal's response:
This challenge has not gone unnoticed. Each year the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars - specifically, more than $10,000 per poor person for welfare, Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, job training and food stamps. Put another way, taxpayers are doing their share.
So the status quo is the solution? And if not for the rhetoric of certain African American preachers, everything would be coming up roses?
We need to work together to help people move from dependency to self-sufficiency.
But we should be clear that this "working together" thing won't involve the dedication of any additional financial resources?
I have encountered negative messages in many states. A community "leader" in Miami's Overtown neighborhood, for instance, told me that he counseled unemployed people not to work on nearby construction projects because racist employers abused them. Pressed for an example of such abuse, he cited an employer's failure to pay overtime for Saturday work.
We're up to a conspiracy of two? Reverend Wright and an unnamed "community 'leader'" who dares to suggest that African Americans should only work for employers who pay them what they earn? Is the message he hopes to send to the African American community, "Your only hope is to take any job you can get, even if your employer is cheating you"? Is that the message he carries to his children's school on "career day"?
Two blocks away, more than a dozen homeless men were camped out under a bridge. Yet a man who was supposed to be guiding people was counseling against working.
Color me skeptical. A "man" who was "supposed to be guiding people" - what's this person's job title? And this guidance session was taking place under a bridge, with Mr. MacDougal listening in?

Something that occurs to me, but perhaps is beneath MacDougal's attention, is the high correlation between homelessness and mental illness. While Mr. MacDougal's advice to the homeless apparently begins and ends with, "Get a job, any job, even if you're cheated on your wages," somebody who knows what he's talking about might recognize that a homeless, mentally ill person might lose Social Security disability benefits and jeopardize Medicaid eligibility by "getting a job" - even assuming a significant population of employers at all interested in employing the homeless, and a significant population of homeless people capable of holding those jobs.
Life isn't fair for people of any skin color.
Life isn't fair to anybody, but it's more fair to some people than it is to others. But why bring race into it? Ah, perhaps MacDougal is reminiscing about the times he was pulled over for "driving while white" through an affluent neighborhood. Or got passed over for a job interview because his name sounded too ethnic. Or showed up to tour an apartment and was told, "Sorry, we just rented the last one." Yup, take it from me, it's tough to be a white guy.
Positive thinking isn't going to solve America's race problems.
It took you long enough to admit that. So what will?

Oh... you're out of space? How unfortunate. Maybe next time....

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