MAXWELL:  Black problems call for black solutions

12/11/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If you have read the cover story in the Dec. 4 issue of the New York Times Magazine, you are reminded again that young black males in the underclass are lurching toward annihilation.

Titled “Who Will Help the Black Man?” the article presents a grim picture: “Two Harlem hospital doctors have calculated that the life expectancy of black men in central Harlem is shorter than that of men in Bangladesh. In America, the leading cause of death among black males between the ages of 15 and 24 is homicide. The unemployment rate in America for black males is twice that of white males. Even black men with jobs and higher education do not, for the most part, receive the same pay as white men or black women.”

The article’s occasion was a New York Times symposium on the plight of black men in America. Bob Herbert, one of the paper’s opinion columnists, moderated. Participants were: Patrick Day, coordinator of the Multicultur-al Service Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock; Ken Hamblin, businessman, syndicated talk-show host and columnist in Denver; Joseph Marshall, founder of a self-help group and talk-show moderator; Hugh Price, National Urban League president; John Singleton, writer and director of Boyz N the Hood fame; and William Julius Wilson, author, professor and director of the Center of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago.

Herbert framed the debate with a no-nonsense, multipart question: “Who is responsible for the terrible situation that so many African-American men and boys are in? And who specifically must begin to turn that around, and how?”

To the first part of the question, the conferees offered insights that included some usual culprits: unemployment brought on by a restructured industrial economy, crack cocaine, endemic violence, self-destructiveness, hopelessness, inferior schools, racism.

The second part of the question brought less-predictable responses. Singleton argued, for example, that black people must solve their own problems: “We need to act the way other successful groups to this country have acted for centuries. Meaning this is our family . . . let us take care of our business. And we will either live or die by that. Either we live by it and survive or we continue to have this industry of destruction going on. It’s a virtual holocaust going on out there now.”

Hamblin agreed but shifted the emphasis from community reaction to common sense, deductive reasoning and individual responsibility: “If we are warned from cradle to grave that racism abounds . . . then because we know . . . we are not going to get a fair deal, we should be the best-educated. Because whitey ain’t going to give us a break. We should be the most law-abiding because the justice system is racist and bigoted. But that requires hard work, midnight oil. Doing the right thing, staying the course.”

The third part of the question _ how to improve the black male’s condition _ caused spirited debate but brought general agreement. All but Hamblin said that a bigger number of successful adults must get directly involved in the lives of young males.

The symposium was more interesting than useful, the most practical realization being that, short of what the government provides for other citizens, black people must solve their own problems. Self-reliance is more critical than ever now that Republicans are in charge of the national agenda. No, I am not suggesting that government give up responsibility in areas like subsidized low-income housing and the equitable disbursement of contracts to black businesses.

I am suggesting, though, that the government cannot make individuals succeed. Sure, Washington can create jobs, but the mere availability of jobs is not the whole answer. Individuals must want to succeed. And real success comes from combining the natural sense of self-preservation, the desire to get ahead and the will to provide for one’s family.

Glaringly missing from the Times symposium and most other gatherings to help young black males are honest discussions on success. Young black males who read the article will not get a list of specific principles to follow, a pragmatic blueprint. The participants, long on anger and abstraction, did not give young black males the benefit of their knowledge and hard-won experiences.

Here, I will go where the Times symposium failed to go. Because I am a relatively successful black man born and reared in poverty, I am presenting, at the risk of appearing vain, some of the principles and ideas that helped me achieve:

Get an education, as much learning as possible. Get a certificate affirming your employability. Study hard. Read broadly and wisely. Travel a lot. Avoid provincialism. Ask questions. Education is no guarantee of success, but it surely decreases the odds of failing.

Get an honest job. Do an honest day’s work. You might have to begin by flipping burgers for minimum wage. So be it. Be realistic. If you do not have a college degree, you probably will not become a CEO. Expect to put in several years before you get a big promotion. Be congenial in the workplace, and, for heaven’s sake, get along with your boss. You want your boss to respect you.

If you have a rotten attitude and resent white people, control these problems. They are self-destructive yokes.

Delay self-gratification. You must eat Spam before you can eat filet mignon. Drive a clunker before buying a Lexus. Shop at Kmart for now; Saks Fifth Avenue comes later.

Do not blame others for your problems. My grandfather taught me to pretend that I cause all of my problems. Why? Because when I treat my problems as my handiwork, I own these problems and am, therefore, empowered to solve them.

Stop joining groups purporting to help you discover your identity. You know who you are. The group is an excuse, a grand deception for avoiding individual responsibility.

Keep your home and community clean. My mother, a one-time welfare recipient, taught me that if you are poor, you have even more reason to keep your environment clean. Cleanliness is all you have. It makes poverty bearable.

Cool the sentimentality for the African continent. Too many young black males are already ignorant of the social skills needed to survive in America. Why add unrealistic, convoluted rhetoric about Africa to a crippling problem? Anyway, most American blacks who go to Africa, as I did, get homesick and return to the United States. We are Americans first, so keep visions of the distant homeland in proper perspective.

Stop perpetuating debilitating stereotypes. For instance, many teachers do not expect young black males to be able to read. We should become the best readers in our schools. We cannot write, they say. We should try to write better than white students. We are lazy. Hell, get two jobs. To live out stereotypes is to make them true.

And above all, please stop being suspicious of success. Stop thinking that every black person who “makes it” is a “sellout,” an Uncle Tom, an enemy of the people. Stop thinking that educated black people are “acting white.” Learning truly is colorblind.

Notice that these principles are devoid of blaming white people. Whites no longer have a legitimate seat at the roundtable where black survival is at issue. Black survival is our business. We must harness the disparate voices among us and stop the foolish name-calling. We must learn how to disagree amicably and put away extreme emotion. We must keep only the ideas that yield positive results.

White people _ or racism _ are only part of our problem. Essentially, we are our own problem, our own worst enemy. And only we can save ourselves.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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