At one time, the drug trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry would have sent enormous shame and feelings of special responsibility surging through me. My thinking used to be that if one black man in a position of power engaged in indiscretions, his actions automatically tainted all blacks, including me.
I don't think that way anymore. I refuse to indulge in collective black guilt. And getting rid of this burden has left me freer to feel such emotions as compassion, commitment and cultural pride. It also has freed me to focus more completely on the real problems of blacks and other oppressed people.
Reaching this state has been a long, often painful journey. My generation's parents encouraged us to believe that personal achievement was tied to the achievement of the race, a wonderful perspective even now. But the flip side of that, assuming guilt for another person's behavior, is not part of that ancestral dictum.
Like many other blacks who were children of segregation and adults of so-called integration, I often was "the first" black or one of only a few blacks in a certain job, social or living situation. While I knew that I belonged to a race of people amazingly diverse and complex, I unconsciously bought into the white majority's concept that blacks were a monolith. Now I see how important it is to offload this self-imposed burden as we struggle to free ourselves from restrictions in housing, jobs, entrepreneurships and politics.
With the release of the Vista tape, any number of columnists and others have given this concept validity by suggesting that all blacks are sitting around, heads hung in special shame over Barry's behavior. No doubt many blacks are engulfed in group guilt, feelings that are inappropriate and damaging to those who buy into them.
Group guilt serves to diminish our sense of personal power. For if we are culpable for the behavior of our black peers, if we are governed by other people's actions, what is the sense of trying to exert control over our own lives?
The next downward twist in this flawed thinking is to look less to our own resources and more to others for leadership.
Yet while we blacks are forever feeling ashamed of the bad behavior of other blacks and looking to some leader to save us, few whites seem ashamed of the indiscretions of other whites.
To take just a few recent examples, I didn't sense that whites were feeling Ivan Boesky's shame or Michael Milken's shame, even though they -- and all of us -- are adversely affected by these two rascals. The billions of dollars they stole in their Wall Street shenanigans contributed mightily to the milieu of crime that has saddled the nation with a $500 billion savings and loan scandal.
Over the years it has become plain to me that it is an inherently racist concept for blacks to take on special shame that whites don't assume. In recent days, I've asked other blacks their views about this. Many have told me that they, too, have been working to rid themselves of the burden of collective black guilt and are at various stages of success in this endeavor.
This doesn't mean that we do not have an enormous sense of group identification. Unlike some other ethnic groups, blacks cannot hide from their ethnicity, even if some, unwisely, wish to do so. The trick is to find a healthy balance between group identity and individual identity. My own journey entailed becoming free enough in my own identity to speak out when blacks are wrong.
By buying into the thinking that Barry's shame is their shame, some blacks feel the need to mercilessly attack Barry. Others appear hell-bent on exonerating him, believing that if Barry is exonerated, all blacks are exonerated.
Perhaps they are afraid that white America will do what white America historically has done -- find yet another convenient, albeit specious, reason for stereotyping all blacks with the failure of one. Such behavior, of course, would be a white problem, not a black one.
It also would affect blacks. For even though we cherish our blackness, in the minds of the majority our color makes it easy to stigmatize us. Unrelentingly negative media coverage, for example, is damaging because the images feed into our collective identity. And too rarely do blacks receive their due for great contributions, which would help ease group shame.
In my ongoing struggle to move away from my own distorted thinking, I've come to realize that no individual or group is served by the notion that the indiscretions of one are a reflection on the group as a whole just because both are black. We are a race of individuals. And some will rise to models of greatness while others may stumble along life's way. And while we may set our own courses by the example of the great ones, we must not believe we are a poorer race because some blacks have faltered.