United We Stood, But Divisions Now Show
The color dynamic flipped during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s; dark-skinned blacks became the rage, and poor people were dubbed "authentic" blacks. Their neighborhoods became the sacrosanct "community"; a failure to genuflect to the poor was sacrilege and cause for banishment. Then as now, it was unpopular to speak ill of the poor; that was traitorous behavior and signaled that the attacker was either guilty of self-loathing or had joined forces with white America.
African-American civil rights leaders enhanced this flawed philosophy with a "bundling" strategy that sought to unite all blacks, however disparate their backgrounds. To undergird it, they wrote a race-based cultural narrative that relegated the history of self-help as a prime vehicle for black empowerment to a mere footnote.
Growing up in New Orleans, where I traveled between the working-class world of my single mother and the middle-class one of my grandparents, I heard numerous stories of middle-class black women in proper hats and gloves working directly to aid the poor.
But these acknowledgements of class differences and the idea of blacks helping themselves were essentially deleted from our history; they were dangerous and could fracture the collective.
Simultaneously, black civil rights leaders developed a targeted agenda that focused tightly on white America and discriminatory public policies, and demanded redress through government services. This served as glue and sealant, creating the illusion of a monolith.
In the beginning, many bought into this strategy. Given the centuries of discrimination African Americans had faced, fighting together was far better than fighting alone. But over time, it has yielded ever-diminishing returns. The strategy is now bankrupt, yet even in the face of black progress and diversification, many African American leaders still enforce it. They continue to seize upon the most egregious cases of discrimination to perpetuate the notion of an America that always was, is now, and forever shall be racist. Writing in response to Cosby's comments in this newspaper, Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, found it necessary to refer to the murder of Amadou Diallo in New York City and an infamous drug sting in Tulia, Texas, where a crooked cop unjustly arrested nearly 10 percent of the town's black residents for drug trafficking, as evidence that "not all African American problems are self-inflicted."
The Diallo and Tulia cases were undeniably horrors, and there's no doubt that not every issue can be resolved simply by tying our shoestrings, standing up and reaching for the next rung on the ladder. But the orthodoxy of an aging civil rights mafia exaggerates the role of racism.
The result is that African Americans too often are discouraged from looking to ourselves as masters of our own socioeconomic destiny, be it stagnation, decline or even success.
This is especially true for those in the lower-income brackets. Years of defective cultural narratives have convinced many low-income people that their personal worth and value is tied to being poor. Losing their victim status would mean losing their authenticity. They are encouraged to cling to each other and snipe at the middle class, calling them sellouts and Uncle Toms, rather than seeing them as people to emulate.
When crime and prison stats go up, black leaders point to "three strikes" laws and discriminatory sentencing guidelines. These are legitimate issues, but not the sole reasons for the high incarceration rate among blacks or the high crime rate in black communities.
When the dropout rate or low test scores are mentioned, black parents don't see themselves as responsible. That's the government's yoke. The most recent demon destroying public education is, of course, the No Child Left Behind law.
African-American families have deteriorated as black leaders have pointed to government policies as the reason for teen pregnancies and absent fathers. They have refused to embrace "family values," seeing them only as part of a Republican-inspired platform, although blacks even during slavery had a strong belief in family. This decline is at the root of much of what ails many lower-income communities.
But the middle class hasn't been exempt from the adverse effects of the civil rights leadership's race-based mantra. While other populations are encouraged to snag the American dream, blacks are forced to cohere, and the middle class is stunted. Although there has been a steady rate of growth in its ranks, that growth is relatively slow compared to that of other ethnic and immigrant populations, because moving on up -- á la television's George Jefferson -- is perceived as abandoning or not caring about "the community."
"There is this subtle guilt thing," says Wiley. "It's as though, by being part of the middle class, somehow we have forfeited our blackness."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company