Black culture reigns supreme! Hip-hop and rap, the dance music with origins in the South Bronx (or Jamaica, depending on who you talk to) has expanded into a global phenomenon. Youngsters in such diverse climates as Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, New Zealand and Scandinavia have found its infectious beats the perfect vehicle to give voice to their frustrations, about consciousness-raising in politics, poverty and so on.
This past week was a time of rejoicing for peoples of African descent, as the cinematic juggernaut that is “The Black Panther” became a success on a global scale, and smashed box office records on virtually every continent. Set in a futuristic (and fictional) African kingdom with a largely Black cast, it dominated ticket sales in Korea to the tune of $25.3 million (no small feat in light of the well documented friction between African American and Korean communities stateside).
Regardless, these triumphs in the arts (along with the accolades earned in the athletic arena), along with the dust still settling from the administration of the first Black President do not diminish the on-going problems that plague the African American community. In the United States, the neighborhoods that spawned these triumphs still suffer from the malaise of crime and imprisonment, drug use, poverty and unemployment, and family disintegration. That these social ills show no signs of abating, and we come to close of the first two decades of the millennium merit a period of contemplation and reflection is in order as we near the end of Black History Month.
Taking Ownership (or blaming the victims)
“We got to look ourselves in the mirror. There’s a reason [law enforcement] racially profile us at times. Sometimes it’s wrong, but sometimes it’s right. So to … sit there and act like we all hold no responsibility for some of this stuff is disingenuous.”
—Retired NBA star Charles Barkley
One troubling side effect of attaining the mantle of success for a person of color is the expectation of becoming a spokesperson for the entire race, regardless of the arena used to reach these achievements. So it is with that considerable segment of the Black population that becomes prominent via their physical accomplishments. These accolades, while impressive, are not necessarily indicative of spirituality, thoughtfulness, or reflection. Yet and still, all opinions are valid.
Barkley is not alone in his sentiments (although it is ironic that he has publicly said that sports figure should not role models), as fellow retired hoopster Karl Malone agrees with his assessment.
“I echo his sentiments exactly. We need to look in our mirror ourselves, stop waiting on someone to come march on our behalf, take ownership in ourself, make our community better, and stop looking for a handout,” he said.
“Stop using that excuse about race,” he continued.
“I am sick and tired that every time you turn around, that’s what we dangle.”
In some circles this is known as “victim blaming,” akin to holding the casualties of criminal injury responsible by virtue of the choices they make prior to the unfortunate deeds. This is especially applicable to victims of rape and sexual assault, who may be scapegoated because of the locales they frequent, their provocative manner of dress, or even the behavior exhibited. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this mindset is former Sheriff of Milwaukee County (Wisconsin) David A. Clarke.
Dysfunction or pathology?
“Until the Black community does a self-evaluation and until they begin to self-criticize about some of the lifestyle choices they are making, this stuff is going to continue to fester.”
—David A. Clarke
This point of view has even seeped into the legal and scholastic realm with a phrase, “the just world hypothesis,” initiated by social psychologist Melvin J. Lerner and championed by clinical psychologist Sherry Hamby. Briefly, this idea is based on the belief in a righteous world, wherein those who reside in it “get what they deserve,” pro or con. Hamby links this to the national belief in the “American Dream,” wherein a person can make his own destiny on the merits of hard work and initiative. This flies in the face of the experience faced by the African Diaspora during their experience in the “New World.”
The use of an unpaid workforce to produce assets was a cornerstone of the growth of the young country, and lay at the very heart of the institution of slavery in America. Along with this was the ever-present possibility of separation, via the sale of any part of the family, at the owner’s discretion. Since slaves comprised a large portion of a plantation’s wealth, the possibility of being “sold down the river” ebbed and flowed with the status of finances with a specific household. The grim realities of this were covered in historian Michael Tadman’s 1989 analysis, “Speculators and Slaves Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South.”
In literature, the separation of families is central to the plot of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and other fictional period pieces. Much later, the idea of an overshoot of a diagnosis,
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which developed in the wake of the Vietnam War. Propagated by Dr. Joy DeGuy and others, Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, or PTSS has been both embraced and shunned by clinicians and mental health workers across the country.
Residue of a painful past
In a nutshell, PTSS suggests that survivors of slavery suffer from unresolved trauma, compounded by generations of systemic oppression in the form of imprisonment, lynching, and the trappings of Jim Crow from the Civil War to the present.
Boris Ricks, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge, points out that the development of the United States, especially its political apparatus, was conceived with no intention for people of color to participate in it. As the new nation matured, the existence of barriers, institutional, systemic and others, inhibited the progress of African Americans to accumulate wealth, engage in commerce, and so on.
That said, he is not committed to the idea of long lasting or permanent damage from the residue of slavery.
“For the record,” Ricks said, “I don’t support the notion of “Black dysfunction.”
Instead, he stresses the duty of individuals of color to be “responsibility stewards to our community.”
For Sandra Cox, a psychotherapist with the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals, the coming year has brought about a moment of clarity, in that she realized it will be the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving in the Americas in 1619 (specifically in Point Comfort, Va.
“I had an epiphany,” Cox noted, because in a society, which puts great stock in celebrations and commemorations of one kind or the other, no preparations are under way for the observance of this momentous event.
Her views on racial issues are informed by the exchanges she’s had with others, most of them Whites who consider themselves “liberal.”
“They’re afraid of us, to tell the truth,” she says.
Cox recalled a recent conversation with a man of Arabic descent who engaged in a rant about the successes of recent expatriates to the U.S., including Korean Americans who’ve established prosperity and material wealth within the span of one or two generations.
For Cox, this was a bogus argument. She maintains most of these expatriates, especially during the Cold War, enjoyed subsidies and other inducements to prosper in the “new land.”
By comparison, the paltry assistance given to Blacks is miniscule for “…the damage done to us.”
This includes the ongoing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, with the GOP saying welfare irreversibly crippled the family by encouraging the “crutch” of public assistance. In her present position, she oversees myriad counseling programs providing help for anger management, domestic and sexual abuse, individual and family therapy, HIV education, and sex offenders.
Like Ricks, Cox dismisses the idea that behaviors, developed over generations of ill treatment, have crippled the community as a whole.
“I do not subscribe to Black pathology,” she says flatly.