MAXWELL:  The missing factor: responsibility

11/27/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like other officials who have spoken publicly about the recent riots and the state of race relations in St. Petersburg, Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros came to town and oversimplified the situation. And like others, he let himself become party to a one-sided debate that ignores much of reality.

Cisneros was right when stating that federal dollars cannot solve all of the problems in this city or ease all of the frustrations of African-Americans. But, like most other officials, the secretary erred when reducing the cause of the problems in St. Petersburg’s riot zone to police brutality, racism and poverty.

“You just need to know that many in the African-American community, including professionals and some of the most honorable people you have in the community, feel that they have been very harshly treated by the St. Petersburg Police Department,” the secretary told City Council members.

Yes, police brutality occurs here, and some cops may be racists. Poverty certainly has taken a toll in ways we have yet to understand. But neither Cisneros nor anyone else should be lulled into ignoring the other side of this dialogue, the side that most people are afraid to discuss: Black neighborhoods will improve only after black people understand that the lives of people everywhere improve in proportion to their willingness to take the long view of life and accept personal responsibility. Black people are not exempted from this universal law. To think otherwise is to be naive and invite disaster.

Personal responsibility, which exists among all races and classes of people, is the conscious will _ no matter the circumstances _ to care for yourself, your loved ones and your possessions, no matter how modest. Poverty alone does not prevent people from being responsible. How else do we explain, in neighborhoods where everyone is poor, the juxtaposition of trash-strewn homes and their well-kept counterparts? Or that some parents in these neighborhoods spend their money on child care, while others spend theirs on crack? Or that some parents let their children hang out on the corner, while others force their children to complete their homework? Or that some young black men willingly accept fast-food jobs rather than rob fast-food joints?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe that these and other actions come from inner motivation _ a sense of responsibility _ and not from the actions of others.

Black people in St. Petersburg also need to understand that black crime _ not police brutality _ destabilizes black communities and chases away business investment. It scares business to death. It drives needed black role models from the inner city into suburbia. Crime destroys the future for the young and makes life meaningless for the old and for the infirm. It turns public schools into scary enclaves. And crime continues to further isolate black neighborhoods from mainstream Tampa Bay.

But the debate rarely focuses on these and other problems over which black people have a large measure of control. To the contrary, the debate nearly always looks at the sins of white people or cops or some other exterior force. No doubt, these forces bear some complicity. But we should not fool ourselves by ignoring that black people in St. Petersburg can do much more for themselves. Many blacks need to stop believing that they must rely on whites for their well-being.

Open discussion about black people’s refusal to accept personal responsibility is the missing side of the debate. And precious little progress will occur until this side is given a serious airing by everyone.

Again, Cisneros upbraided whites for insensitivities and blind spots, suggesting that St. Petersburg is one of the most racist cities he has visited. He asked whites to change their behavior, even insisting that they sit down with a man whose organization wants to execute police officers.

Cisneros asked little or nothing of blacks. He did not ask so-called black leaders, especially ministers, to condemn the violence that ripped the city apart. He did not ask drug traffickers to stop selling crack to black children. The debate is one-sided.

+ Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times. +