Failure in Black America

Monday, July 23, 2007

Myron Magnet of City Journal has written a lengthy, but very perceptive article on what I think of as the death spiral of America's black culture, a phenomenon he correctly indicates as being not merely political (i.e., reinforced by the welfare state), but also cultural.

Does all this matter? Well, we all see the world through the spectacles of our culture and subgroup; we depend on belief and prejudice to understand our experience; we slip into the manners and rituals of our culture as a way of knowing who we are and how we should behave. Imagine yourself one of the vulnerable kids that rap sings about, born in a project to an uneducated, teen single mother, possibly put into foster care, surrounded by gangs and gangstas, attending an unruly school that teaches -- if it teaches anything -- that you are a victimized minority in an unjust country that doesn't want you to rise, and that you should nevertheless have high self-esteem because you are fine just as you are. No one gives you a book that opens up the world of possibility beyond your cramped existence. Meanwhile, through the headphones that you always wear pulses the beat of rap, driving out thought and underscoring the message of anger, hatred of the oppressor policeman, and resentful entitlement that the lyrics convey. You go home and watch rap videos on BET. You dress like a gangsta, talk like a gangsta, behave like a gangsta.
In other words, if black youths once had to face a life of persecution as sacrificial victims to white racism, black youths must now face an ordeal that is even harder in a spiritual sense: a life of debilitation due to thorough indoctrination with altruism and as recipients of altruistic sacrifice. Both aspects of such an upbringing make one scorn the attitudes and action necessary for a fully human existence.

I am currently reading Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality 1890-2000, by Adam Fairclough, on whose cover this image of a civil rights demonstration appears. Most of the men in the line are wearing placards that read, "I am a man."

If one thing has struck me in my reading so far, it has been that despite generations of mistreatment, inequality before the law, and the small (but real) mortal danger posed by lynching, the spirit of black Americans was never broken.

It is this spirit which makes this picture so moving: These men are confronting injustice, meeting it eye to eye, and asking only to be treated as equals.

And, alas, it is this spirit which seems to be broken today as one reads the article, especially as one reads about the abject poverty in spirit exemplified by so much of rap music and gangsta culture, which Magnet sees as both symptoms and reinforcing factors of this cultural decline.

What I would have liked to see more of in this analysis is an explicit naming of the ultimate villain in the misfortunes suffered by black Americans throughout history: The morality of altruism, which was used to justify their slavery in the first place (e.g., George Fitzhugh: "[S]ome were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them, and the riding does them good.") and is now used both to excuse underachievement and to justify massive welfare programs and proposals for "reparations". Only when this villain is named does the shift in black culture really make sense: Whereas the black man was once fighting altruism, he has now accepted it, having apparently been duped by his becoming a recipient of sacrifice rather than the sacrificed. Sadly, neither position is enviable.

While it is easy to see how slavery and second-class citizenship are harmful, it is not as obvious why learned attitudes of entitlement and the so-called "social safety net" are perhaps even more harmful. As the data brought up by this article (as well as its references to Theodore Dalrymple, who has studied the British underclass) should illustrate, these cultural and political forces conspire, as I have discussed before, to permit the black underclass to "escape the ultimate consequences of their chronic dereliction". In other words, the natural incentives for rational self-interest are removed from the equation during one's formative years in such milieux.

The loftier benefits of civilization praised by this article, the courage of countless otherwise ordinary men during the civil rights era, and even rule of law came into existence because men whose minds were focused on the purpose of living their lives saw these things as worthy of obtaining for themselves. To sever the very basic mental association between one's own effort and one's ability to live a life proper to man thus endangers his life -- whether that danger is posed by slavery itself or by a lifetime of essentially having scorn for self-improvement beaten into one's head.

Ayn Rand's famous protagonist, John Galt, once said, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." Although this oath is a rejection of the morality of altruism (and its political consequence, collectivism), its last clause is also, and more deeply, an identification of the fact that it is not possible to live as a man -- by attempting to live as a parasite. This is part of what the more "dystopian" aspects of that novel were meant to show, and that is what is playing out right now in black America.

The liberation of black Americans will remain incomplete until reason and egoism replace whim and altruism as major components of their culture.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

I think it is also worth noting that black people are also very religious. Not so much in the zeal of their beliefs, but in the near unanimity of their belief in god. You rarely see a black person win an award without thanking god. Also, there is a persistent belief that god will "only give you what you can handle" that they use to rationalize their mistakes.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are right, there. Religion is a mixed bag for everyone, combining attempts to answer legitimate philosophical questions and meet real psychological needs with beliefs poisonous to mental health and good cognitive development.

But I think religion is even more a mixed bag for blacks, who suffer greatly because of it as you have indicated, but who have also historically lived in such destitution and hopelessness that religion was often also one of the few sources of comfort they had.

I'm not making any excuses for religion here. Just explaining why I think it will be even more difficult to reduce its effect on black culture than for most other segments of America's culture.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Objectivism has had great acceptance among blacks. I've yet to see a black Ojbectivist in any of the numerous Objectivist conferences I've been to (although I haven't been to one in a few years). Blacks have been bombarded by modern collectivists (primarily on the Left) with a group identity pro-vicitimization philosophy. It will provide a tough barrier for Objectivism to penetrate. While there are some good Black conservatives like Sowell or Williams there has yet to emerge an Objectivist black intellectual. I hope to see this happen some time soon.

John Kim

Gus Van Horn said...

It is true that blacks are, to use the parlance of our times, "underrepresented" among Objectivists.

But it is equally true that the benefits of a broader cultural influence by Objectivism do not require mass acceptance of the entire philosophy.

The rarity of black Objectivists I would take as just another indicator of how much more badly affected black culture is than the rest of American culture by religion and other types of bad philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Exactly on that last point. I would add that it is really epistemology where blacks need to change. The way information circulates among black people is crucial. From my experience there is a far greater dependence on knowlege by rumor, rather than an independent initiative to find something out in the black community. This manifests itself in people beginning their sentences with "I heard.", and "They say."

Here's another thing I'd like to offer: I asked my black athiest girlfriend whether a spontaneous discussion of the existence of god would be likely to come up in a group of black youngsters, and she replied "Oh NO!" Thats weird, I remember in middle school, leading a discussion on this subject in the middle of computer lab. As a 13-14 y/o I was fixated on this. Other white children seemed interested.

Gus Van Horn said...

A complicated mess I'd like to see explained is how much the historical efforts to thwart black education and social institutions has contributed to these aspects of the culture.

Such things do not determine whether someone can or will develop intellectually, but they can make it much harder. (And this is also a counter example to the "positive feedback of capitalism" some have remarked upon.)

Anonymous said...

Which "historical efforts" are you talking about?

Gus Van Horn said...

The efforts, during slavery and Jim Crow, to keep blacks from receiving educations or otherwise acting to improve their own situations.

Some of the things that were done to suppress the NAACP (as an example of a social institution), for example, were positively hair-raising.

From the book I cite:

"In the spring of 1956, the Southern states launched a coordinated legal offensive, planned with care and stealth, to cripple the association. They prohibited state employees from advocating integration, forcing black teachers -- one of the mainstays of the NAACP -- to resign from the NAACP or face dismissal. In South Carolina, twenty-four teachers at Elloree Training School in Orangeburg County quit their jobs rather than renounce their membership. ... Such instances of defiance, however, were comparatively rare. Teachers resigned from the NAACP in droves, often dropping out of all conspicuous civiol rights activity.

"Few NAACP members, however, could breathe easy. Resurrecting long-forgotten and obscure laws, state prosecutors hauled the NAACP into court for neglecting to file its membership lists with the state authorities. The association found itself between the devil and the deep blue sea. If they complied with the law and handed over the lists, as the NAACP in Louisiana chose to do, they lost most of their memebers -- for the Citizens Councils immediately published the lists, inviting whites to fire, boycott, and intimidate those whose names appeared. ... Yet refusal to hand over the membership lists, the line taken by the NAACP in Alabama, proved more costly. Ruling against the NAACP to be in contempt of court, state judge Walter B. Jones enjoined it from operating anywhere in Alabama. His ban stood for eight years."

On top of greatly slowing the progress of black Americans, such measures also, no doubt, have left a legacy of distrust for many of the very institutions (especially governmental) that are supposed to protect individual rights.