The Politics of Black Aspiration and Black Responsiblity


by Jelani Cobb

As wide-eyed Southern migrants stepped off trains in the big cities of the North a century ago, they were met by groups like the National Urban League, who presented them with care packages that often included basic items like soap and toiletries. This racial noblesse oblige was motivated by a sense of community responsibility, but also by the embarrassment that an upper tier of black America felt at the rough-hewn ways of their newly urban counterparts. The gifts were sometimes accompanied by handbills detailing the behavior expected of the new arrivals: admonitions against congregating on stoops, dressing inappropriately, wearing hair rollers in public, or raising chickens in the city. From the most cynical—and not entirely incorrect—perspective, the black struggle for civil rights in this country was driven by the desire of a fragile class of black strivers to distance themselves from the Negro non grata in a way that segregation made all but impossible.

At the turn of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois crusaded against the evils of segregation, one of which was the forced association of men of his standing with ruffians and undesirables. The sentiment was familiar to me long before I ever encountered his work, from my father’s frequent admonishment: “Never be common.” This was told to me by a man with only three grades of formal education, the product of an overlooked outpost called Hazelhurst, Georgia, who had joined the Army and then made his way to Harlem in pursuit of better odds. The pervasive inequity, and nearly uniform poverty, of Jim Crow did not eliminate the capacity for class condescension among black people; it simply meant that “class” would be defined far more by behavior than by education or wealth.

Years later, at the graduation where I received my doctorate, I gave my degree to my mother—a woman born in Bessemer, Alabama, who left the South at age fifteen for Chicago and finished high school there, but who, throughout her life, wielded her refined diction as a shield. Handing her the diploma was partly an act of filial deference, and mostly acknowledgement of an inside joke. The casual observer might see the arc of this family history—from an elementary school education to a Ph.D., in a single generation—as a metaphor for the successes of the civil-rights movement and a testament to the elastic potential of American democracy. But to my mother it had more to do with the guile of Brer Rabbit than the benevolence of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Of late, we have begun to speak a great deal about black aspiration. Between the announcement, at the end of February, of Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and Paul Ryan’s uncommonly blunt appraisal, last week, of “inner-city” men, poor black people find themselves, once again, part of a vexed dialogue about poverty, race, and government. “Common,” as my father used it, has become an obscure epithet, but for those curious about its meaning Ryan provided a serviceable definition:


We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.


Ryan’s remarks soon gave way to the usual protestations of innocence: “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race,” he declared the next day. “It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.” But this bit of theatre only obscured a more troubling issue, one that Ta-Nehisi Coates raised on the Web site of The Atlantic earlier this week. Ryan’s indictment of “inner-city” laziness, with its obvious echoes of Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” rhetoric, doesn’t sound so different from Barack Obama’s exhortations to African-American personal responsibility—which were on display in the White House at the end of last month, when the President launched his initiative to help young men of color. As Coates wrote:

A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I’m not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are “not holding up their end of the deal” as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship.

Obama’s frequent recourse to what is often called “responsibility politics” is not without its supporters: I made an oblique criticism of the program during a television appearance, and a small tide of black recrimination followed in response. On Thursday, Jonathan Chait, New Yorks politics writer, defended Obama against Coates’s criticism, on the grounds that the President had a very different perspective from Paul Ryan, who believes that liberal public policies are responsible for the “cycle of poverty.” By contrast, Chait wrote, “Obama’s habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African-American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior.”

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SOURCE: The New Yorker

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