I want to address an issue which has been on my mind for
decades - the portrayal of a false dichotomy between the movements
for social, political and economic justice for Black Americans
and the importance of personal responsibility, integrity and
accountability in one’s personal life. Since the 1980's I
have watched as several Black American intellectuals have
come forward with a strong voice focused on the fundamental
importance of personal decisions and integrity in building
a prosperous life and taking advantage of the opportunities
in this country. I think of Shelby Steele and his book The
Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race In America.
And now Bill Cosby, with his personal campaign and speaking
have watched as people who raise this issue are isolated and
marginalized in press and by critics in the Black community.
Relative to the numerous issues facing the Black community,
poverty and unemployment, lack of quality educational opportunity,
lack of job training, inadequate affordable housing, inadequate
health care facilities and access, drug addiction, gangs and
gun violence, inadequate infrastructure and maintenance in
the Black community, the role of the individual can seem inconsequential.
People who raise this issue essentially become Black props
in the pantheon of right wing “values issues”. I have often
wondered, do they become right wing spokesmen by choice, or
do they seek refuge there? (I do not know the answer, I am
certain it varies based on the individual.)
It is false and misleading to say or imply that the message
of personal integrity and responsibility is not central to
the moral and political thrust of the Civil Rights movement.
Many of us have benefited from the increased opportunities
brought about by this social movement in which we and/or our
parents and families probably participated. Does that mean
that we do not value personal integrity and responsibility???
There has been a historical divergence between two perspectives
articulated in the very public debate between WEB DuBois and
Booker T Washington. At that time, in the shadow of slavery,
the issues and the facts were more stark. “Separate but equal”
was the law of the land. Only the “separate” part was enforced
and encoded in the Jim Crow laws. Black Americans were legally
barred from social, economic and political opportunities.
Although individual circumstance may have allowed a Black
person to advance as was the case with both Booker T. Washington
and WEB DuBois, the legal and political structures were designed
to prevent Black American advancement. Those who like to point
to the “failures of the civil rights movement” as a critique
of social action, themselves fail to recognize the transformative
effect that the Civil Rights and Black Power movements had
on this country and on our individual lives.
It is important to look at the unintended outcomes of the
Civil Rights and Black Power movements from the perspective
of history. All actions have unintended outcomes. Growth and
leadership comes through engaging and analyzing these outcomes
to inform your future decisions and actions. The division
of these two imperatives, as if they represent opposite ends
of the political spectrum now, does not serve the best interests
of the Black community in this country at this time, or of
any community in this country for that matter. In fact, both personal
accountability and social justice are necessary for the full
potential contribution of our young men and women to be realized.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I was director of a program
that was to provide an opportunity for economically disadvantaged
minorities and white students from the United Negro College
Fund (UNCF), state, and community college schools, who had
a record of performing well in premedical courses, to come
and take courses and learn more about the medical profession
and the application and admission process sponsored by a prestigious
private university. The applicant pool was nation-wide and
there were established relationships with premedical advisors
at many UNCF schools, state schools, and community colleges.
Among the Black students, the female applicant pool average
grade was B+. Among the males, there were a few standouts,
but the average was about a C. In order to strengthen the
male applicant pool I initiated recruitment activities focused
on Black male students. The numbers and grades increased,
but many of them were either immigrants or first generation
children from the West Indies. From my own study of African
American history, I knew that, particularly in New York, there
has been a history of tension between the West Indian immigrant
community and the Black American community.
Indians (particularly Jamaicans) would come to the United
States and have much greater success than Black Americans
who had lived here for generations. My own conclusion and
belief is that immigrants from the West Indies grow up in
countries which may be poor or lacking in opportunities, but
the social, political and economic structure is dominated
by black people! There is no actual or psychological limit
on how high a person can rise in that society based on skin
color. They have no internalized limitation on what they feel
they can have access to, or how many chances they will pursue
to succeed, or how many opportunities they are entitled to.
When they come to this country, they may experience racism
and discrimination, but their own personal self-esteem and
aspirations are not limited by a personal history of “racial
I was recently introduced to this wording of
the concept in the book Post
Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury
and Healing by
Joy Leary PhD, (don't be put off by the title which can seem
rather imitative, but describes a phenomena that you will
recognize.) Dr. Leary discusses personal actions in parenting
and modeling which are necessary to counteract the persistent
and insidious individual influences of the history of racist
political and social practices. Many of the modern cultural phenomena in the Black community
(hip-hop, gangsta rap, bling bling, etc.) which are manifested
in individual behaviors, do develop in reaction to these forces.
That doesn't mean that they are all healthy reactions - and
that is where is the personal responsibility piece comes in.
I remember speaking with a college classmate during the Reagan
years about some of the social issues affecting the Black
community (homelessness, drug addiction, poverty). His response
was “Who is looking out for me - I am working hard and paying
my taxes. Who is trying to help me get ahead?” He said it
with annoyance as if he was tired of hearing about the downtrodden
who weren't doing anything for themselves. My thought was
that he is looking out for himself, because he is in a position
to do so. He and I and others in our circumstances can look
out for each other. We are linked to our communities and their
situation in this country whether we like it or not.
I work in a very white suburban community hospital. I was
in pantry area of the physicians’ lounge one day during the
last election and a group of doctors in the sitting area behind
a wall were talking politics. I heard a voice say in response
to a question, “Well, black people don't count because they
don’t vote.” And the white folks in the pantry section all
looked at me. I do vote, and I understand that many
Black people believe that their individual vote does not count.
With the history in the 2000 and 2004 national elections of
“caging” as a means of voter suppression, there is a real
basis for that belief. It does not change the importance of
each Black person casting their ballot at every opportunity.
I understand why Bill Cosby is beating the drum for personal
responsibility, and he is taking his message directly to inner
city communities. I have listened to Michael Eric Dyson and
read some of his work and I do agree with his analysis - there
are powerful economic, social and political forces that are
vested in keeping the Black community in its current state
of economic subjugation and political impotence. When the
movement for social justice for Black Americans is presented
as the opposite of individual responsibility, that is a divisive
political strategy which undermines our strength and coherence
as a community.
The message of personal accountability and integrity, should
be a progressive one because it is a message our
community needs to embrace and embody to move forward. It
should be placed in the context of the economic, political,
and social forces that affect our community. It should be
an inspirational message of possibility and hope. To paraphrase
a friend of mine “Individual responsibility is important,
social responsibility is essential”.
David Memnon, is a Black American professional from the Civil
Rights/Baby Boom generation. Click
here to contact Mr. Memnon.