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January 17, 2009 -- January 2009 finds the issue of race front-and-center with the celebration of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s birthday followed by the inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s first black president, in Washington, D.C., a majority black city with a black mayor.
With Obama’s election, discussions of race have tended to be framed in two ways.
First, there has been an increased focus on values in black communities and culture. For example, comedian/actor Bill Cosby has received much attention for his strong pronouncements about the need for blacks in the lower class to teach their children personal morality, clean up the coarseness in their own culture, and focus more on self-improvement.
These sentiments have been expressed for years by a small but now-growing number of conservative blacks, sentiments that were often ignored by too many other blacks, who looked to government as a principal source of personal improvement. But the well-articulated message of personal responsibility from a high-profile liberal like Cosby is less easily ignored.
Second, because Obama ran as a candidate who wanted to “transcend” race, there has been concern among many old-school black leaders that the new president, as he tries to do what he sees as right for all Americans, will ignore what these leaders see as the unique needs of blacks. It’s no surprise that these Leftists see more government handouts and preferences as what blacks “need.”
But the issue of race should be framed in a more fundamental way, in terms of the individual versus the collective, in this case the black racial group.
Martin Luther King was right in the hope he expressed in his famous 1963 civil rights speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The reason we judge people by their character is that character is something over which individuals ultimately have control, and for which they can rightly be praised or blamed. And one’s own ideas and actions, even more than environment and upbringing, form one’s character and support survival and flourishing.
During the initial years of the Civil Rights Movement, the goal of leaders like King was not only to change laws that discriminated against blacks but also to change the moral attitudes of many Americans. Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policies today, his election with 43 percent of the white vote and 54 percent of votes from whites under the age of 29 shows how far the country and culture have come in the past half-century, from the days when the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan could command the attention of far more than a handful of fringe bigots.
But in spite of King’s focus on individual character, most black leaders after King—self-appointed, media-created, or otherwise—actively sought to keep the focus on racial identity rather than on the individual. This was in large part because they sought not simply equality before the law but also special government handouts and privileges based on race, ostensibly to make up for past wrongs.
Needless to say, special treatment did not raise blacks to the same economic level as whites; it’s not handouts but personal enterprise and initiative that bring prosperity.
Worse, special treatment encouraged many blacks to think of themselves as helpless victims who had to depend on others for their well-being.
Further, to secure special privileges, black leaders had to encourage whites, and especially politicians, to continue to think in racial terms as well. Even the majority of individual whites who might have had nothing to do with discrimination or the legal barriers to blacks had to see themselves as somehow collectively responsible for the plight of blacks.
But by encouraging racial thinking, black elites opened a Pandora’s box.
Most individuals aren’t scholars. They often make judgments based on impressions rather than deep analysis. So consider an impression they might get by thinking in terms of race.
In 2005, there were 194 murders in Washington, D.C., a city that is 57 percent black. That year, neighboring Prince Georges County had 173 murders; it is 66 percent black. The next highest number of murders in the Washington metropolitan area in 2005 was in Fairfax, Virginia, which had only 24 killings. That city is only 9 percent black. Go 30 miles up Interstate 95 to Baltimore, which is 65 percent black, and you have 269 murders. You see a similar pattern in metropolitan areas across the country.
While murder rates and rates for many other crimes have steadily declined in the D.C. area and throughout the nation over past decades, we can still ask, “What impression do we get from judging first in terms of race?” The answer: Avoid black neighborhoods. They are dangerous. Even black cab drivers are sometimes known to refuse to pick up other blacks in certain neighborhoods; these cabbies seem to have a rational prejudice since they see that the danger of becoming crime victims is higher in certain neighborhoods and from individuals of a certain race.
For years, black elites and white liberals argued that it is poverty and economic differences that cause high crime rates. But over time and across other ethnic groups, this pattern has not held. Poverty as such doesn’t equal crime.
Further, most individual poor blacks are not criminals. Somehow their below-the-national-average incomes don’t compel them to rob liquor stores.
Abandon the collectivist perspective, and you see that factors like the moral character and personal responsibility about which King and Cosby spoke are more important determinants of who becomes a criminal and, more importantly, who lives a successful and happy life.
Other black elites still blame racism and discrimination for the plight of many blacks, even though legal barriers were removed decades ago.
For example, Marianne Bertrand, of the University of Chicago, and Sendhil Mullainathan, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported in 2003 on an experiment they conducted to determine whether employers react adversely to black-sounding names, which would indicate a tendency to discriminate. They sent out 5,000 resumes in response to 1,300 job advertisements. Some of the resumes contained black-sounding names—Keisha, Aisha, Rasheed—while identical resumes contained white-sounding names—Jay, Brad, Kristen. The researches found that the resumes with the white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get a callback from prospective employers.
But rather than demonstrating the existence of an irrational racism, the study might really show that the collective identity promoted by black elites has had another sad affect. Why? Blacks have special privileges under a plethora of laws to sue for alleged acts of discrimination. Evidence of actual discrimination need not be proved against the employer; the twisted uses of statistics can substitute. Further, black elites have made an industry of promoting and financing such suits.
So employers who learn to think and see the world in terms of a racial group rather than individual potential and achievement will be reluctant to increase their chances of getting sued by hiring members of a litigious group.
They might also remember those high crime rates. And they might remember that out-of-wedlock births, with all the associated pathologies, for non-Hispanic whites is about 25 percent compared to nearly 70 percent for blacks. If one is thinking in terms of groups, the impression is that this one doesn’t seem to be very responsible.
Of course, more important than what others think about us is what we each think about ourselves and the world in which we live, about our own goals and aspirations, and about how we might best achieve those goals.
Many of our ideas, values, assumptions, and expectations ostensibly come from others, from parents and teachers and the transmission belt of the culture in which we find ourselves. Thus those who are critical of particular ideas and values found in black culture are on the right track.
But when individuals tie their sense of identity and self-worth to membership in a group or culture, they are likely to have an immediate, negative, emotional, and thought-stopping reaction to any criticism of the group’s values.
This is why it is crucial for every human being, and especially those who want to see the black pathologies of the past disappear, to hold as high virtues the importance of critically examining all of one’s values and ideas, and the importance of using one’s own individual, independent mind to make judgments rather than accepting ideas simply because they are found in one’s group or culture.
During the presidential election, Barack Obama came in for much criticism for his twenty-year membership in the Trinity United Church, presided over by Pastor Jeremiah Wright. Wright was a vocal purveyor of anti-Americanism, bizarre conspiracy theories, and a racist black liberation theology that was featured on the church’s website. Obama said he missed the sermons containing Wright’s wrong-headed rantings.
But what of the other members of this, the largest black church in Chicago? What of those thousands who over the years have screamed “Hallelujah” at such nonsense?
Wright has supposedly expressed the view that the government might have spread AIDS and drugs in black communities. These are views found among a number of black elites; indeed, Rep. Maxine Waters, a black California Democrat and chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, has gone after the CIA for years for supposedly being involved in drug trafficking in inner cities. What of those who, out of anger rather than evidence, walk around with such an improbable and unproven notion in their heads about who is behind the pushers? What about those who base their judgments about the source of black drug addiction on this notion, and who use this notion to guide their political actions and thus continue to vote for Waters?
To think as an individual, to abandon group-think, requires calm consideration, not mind-blinding emotions. This is a crucial lesson that those who want to see America become a truly “transracial” country must learn.
Every week in Washington, D.C., President Obama will turn on the TV and see what he saw in Chicago and what can be seen in any major American city: tearful locals holding candlelight vigils for murder victims—too often children. They declare through their grief that “this must stop!” But soon the sad scene will be repeated. The faces of the mourners and the victims are most often black. And when the killers are caught, they too are mostly black.
The problems of race today aren’t those of the white bigotry that sadly was the rule through much of America’s history. The problems are found in wrong ideas and wrong values.
Obama has an opportunity to help complete the American Revolution, which promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to each individual. But securing and enjoying these rights requires a morality of individualism, independent and critical thinking, and a culture in which we each view one another as individuals to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our characters.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.