By Patricia J. Williams
Sunday, January 7, 2007

One of the more difficult aspects of America's legacy of segregation is its tenacious hold on the cultural imagination. Our nation is perhaps the most racially and ethnically diverse on Earth, yet the rich potential of such pluralism is largely invisible or even considered a threat. Conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie, for example, recently fretted: "With the feminists, the homosexual groups, the other interest groups, you put it all together with the black interest groups and it does not look like America." What America "looks like" depends in part on what one chooses to see. Such myopia too frequently trumps reality, and can morph over time into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Washington Post's report on the status of black men presents a sad picture. The stresses are so great, the odds of success so long, the mantras so empty, the faith in God so punishing. The litany of ills is endless: attitude problems, shiftlessness, violent deaths, wrongful imprisonment, profiling, flunking out of school, health problems, hard work and more hard, hard work. The welter of labels alone reads like a knell: minstrel, overprivileged elitist, thug, castaway, professional victim.

Reading all this, I felt myself sinking into despair. To the extent that the series accurately reflects our culture, I saw little possibility of escape, no window of bright hope toward which to point my son. What will our children have to do to overcome the confinement of subtle rhetorical boxes, the presumption of others that they can glance at you and know everything there is to know?

The only person in the series who was depicted as having liberated himself from the racial expectations of others was Eric Motley, a White House adviser, who seemed to have become "an independent thinker" by relinquishing any identity at all, to say nothing of many of the pleasures of being alive. He was presented as a loner who sprays his hands with Lysol, has erased all regionalism from his accent, is too "finicky" to marry, shunned games and sports as a child, and, as an adult, spends his free time collecting obituaries.

As I ponder how the basic humanity of black men can be recouped, I've come to believe that an important element will be undoing lots of those boxes. It will involve bringing to the fore the unconscious phrases, the little words that escape our attention -- the messages that are so ubiquitous that they become invisible. The forces that so disfavor the lives of black men work like an optical illusion, like that silhouetted image of a white urn against a black backdrop. If you look at the black backdrop long enough, you see not a white urn, but two black faces in profile. The ability to see both the urn and the faces at once enlarges one's perception -- not merely because you can see two images, but because you can also see your own mind playing tricks on you.

Early in the series, for example, an African American woman bemoaned the prejudice she observed in the corporate arena. "I see more black women than black males," she said. There was a telling lack of parallelism in that statement. On the one hand, she spoke of "women," not "females." Yet she represented the missing colleagues as "males" rather than "men." This biological designation is so common that it falls trippingly from all our tongues, but it is the police-speak of perpetual criminalization. It is not a reference to fellow citizenry; it is not a civil mode of address at all. We the people are enfranchised men and women. We the males and females are a lesser species, fit for a farm, a preserve, a holding pen.

That said, there is still an irresistible seductiveness to the negativity projected onto the "black male" shape. There is something tantalizingly and perpetually foreign about those who occupy the unpredictable "border area between possibility and peril," as one of the earlier contributions to the series put it. But there is also the risk of romanticizing that territory. In a summary of what former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial called the unique bond shared by black men, the article offers this characterization: "Wherever black men congregate, there is often a comfort level that crosses class and generational lines. There is even a universally acknowledged black men's club, the barbershop, where no subject is off limits." This is the language of tourism, of someone visiting an exotic, far-off place, writing a postcard to the amazed burghers back home. To clarify, imagine rewriting it so that it becomes a mirror image: "Wherever white men congregate, there is often a comfort level that crosses class and generational lines. There is even a universally acknowledged white men's club, the country club, where no subject is off limits."

I suppose it could be said that both versions are not entirely wrong insofar as they reflect the broadest of realities, but is there not something troubling about such over-generalization, this mystification of a monolithic band of brothers whose flocking rituals are ripe for discovery?

Another small but significant box into which black men are slipped is that of willful laziness. However bad the job market, however many blue-collar jobs outsourced, however horrendous the educational system in black neighborhoods -- the reason black men are unemployed is because they just don't want to work. "Years ago, if you were a black man and you didn't work, it was a shame," Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter told The Post. "Now, the shame is gone."

What does it mean to say that being out of work "was" a shame? I live in New York City, where approximately 50 percent of all black men are unemployed. When I see black men hanging about on street corners, it is a pressing and very present shame. It is a loss, a sorrow, a tragedy. Is that sadness really only characteristic of "years ago"?

When McWhorter confines regret and shame about this joblessness to the past, he implies that all that's left in today's black men is shamelessness. This, I think, comes perilously close to evoking a gilded narrative of master-servant nostalgia: How we miss the good old days when "those people" (and it has been said of the Irish, Germans, peasants, etc.) were all hardworking and happy and grateful. But "now," sigh, they're all so uppity that you can't find one who wants to do windows.

This dismisses the ugly, grinding history of unremitting black labor over centuries. It ignores the despair and isolation of so many blacks who spend so much of their lives looking for work, for education, for housing. Pick up any local newspaper in the country any given week, and chances are good that you can find a picture of very long lines of mostly African Americans queuing up to apply for jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonald's or perhaps a new mall. The caption is always something about the highs or lows of the service industry; rarely have I seen one that says anything like "hardworking black people line up hoping to do an honest day's labor."

There are lessons to be learned from this series on the status of black men: We must attend to all the large and small missteps it took to create our greatest shame -- the abyss of our so-called underclass.

Patricia J. Williams, a law professor at Columbia University and columnist for the Nation, is the author of "The Alchemy of Race and Rights" (Harvard University Press).

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