Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Painting it Black

A while back, I went to an exhibition of photographs by a well-known black photographer – a Pittsburgh resident who captured countless images of black (African-American, Negro, etc. - your choice) life in the city for a number of decades. Now... the literature accompanying this exhibition, predictably, described the black community of those times with words like “vibrant”, “dynamic”, “lively”, and so on – you've heard the same words used to describe Harlem in the old days, as well as any number of other urban black communities throughout the U.S.

Now, to begin with, when's the last time you heard, or read, any of these words used to describe inner-city black communities of today? Now it's more like “blighted”, “dysfunctional”, “drug-ridden”, “single-parent (i.e., without a father) households”, “crime-ridden”, “unsafe”... with a barely-concealed additional adjective: “hopeless”. And the question that always comes to mind – mine, at least – is “what happened”? And this is particularly salient given all of the alleged “advances” that have occurred in the meantime, starting with the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) – not to mention countless programs promoting affirmative action, equal opportunity, preferences, set-asides, minority-owned businesses, Head Start (1964), ad infinitum. (And do I need to add that the high water mark of the “urban riots” occurred after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act? The Watts riots of 1965 are usually considered to have been the first in this series, although they were preceded by Rochester and Philadelphia, both in 1964.)

So again I ask, “what happened?” Or better yet, what didn't happen? One would think that, once “equality” had been codified in federal law, people would have been satisfied to sit back and reap the benefits in a calm and orderly manner... and some did. But that doesn't explain the riots, or the apparent degradation of black communities and black culture since.

The explanations – if one can call them that – come from many quarters, and are typically divided into two main categories, which I'll call “racism” and “failure”. The “racism” theory (cherished by liberals, Democrats, the “black leadership”, NPR, PBS, the public schools, academia, etc.) focuses on what is called residual racism, or institutional racism, which is said to have persisted long after legal equality was achieved – right up to the present day, in fact. The theme is that, no matter what the law says, whites have done everything in their power to keep black people down – that there has, in fact, been a reaction not unlike what happened after the Civil War in the South. Yesterday's Klansman is today's bigoted cop and biased judge... subtle racism in hiring... discrimination in law enforcement... and so on. You've heard it all a million times, and I'm not saying it's all imaginary.

The “failure” theory (found mostly in Republican and/or conservative circles), on the other hand, contends that it's the black community itself – collectively or as individuals – that has failed to take advantage of legal equality, and for any number of reasons – passivity, the habit of being (and feeling) oppressed, a sense of entitlement, politics, hostility, refusal to “integrate”, laziness, sheer cussedness... again, you've heard it all a million times. And again, there may be more than a grain of truth to this idea.

What I think – trying to take the middle road here – is that the answer is “some of each”... but also much more. Consider, for a moment, not what measures like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act actually contained, but what they implied. The implication was that this would solve everything – that with equality before the law would follow, in short order, a change in attitude... even though those attitudes had been formed since the start of slavery in the New World and had persisted far beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Black people reacted to being enslaved; no surprise! But they also reacted to the fact that, after emancipation, many other things that should have changed didn't... and this form of reaction continues to this day, despite all the “advances” of the 1960s and beyond. This is on the political side.

On the psychological side, the measures of the civil rights era and beyond seemed to imply that with equality should come not only changes in attitude and equal opportunity, but equality of outcome as well. I guess this could come under the heading of the “failure” theory, except it's much more subtle. From the perspective of many blacks, white “privilege” has always – no matter what form it takes – been at a cost to blacks. In other words, whatever advantages or gains whites have are ill-gotten, in the sense that there must (according to the narrative) be some instance of oppression and exploitation of blacks behind them – even if we're talking about, e.g., a small businessman in New England whose ancestors never owned any slaves and who hardly ever dealt with, let alone mistreated, a black person. It's not unlike the theory that all wealth is based on a crime; any advantage whites have must, by definition, be based, in some mysterious way, on oppression and exploitation of blacks – since (according to the liberal meme) life is a zero-sum game, at least economically. One man's gain is always another man's loss – therefore white gains must equal black losses; it's as simple as that. So what is the remedy for this? Not only equal opportunity from here on out, but what are called “reparations” up to, and perhaps beyond (call it “punitive damages”) the point at which blacks and whites have the same amount of prestige, social status, household income, money in the bank (or the stock market)... the same houses, the same cars... you tell me at what point this notion of “equality” would end, or be satisfied. Listening to what is referred to as the “black leadership”, I would say the answer is “never”. This is a wound that, apparently, will never heal (to which some would say, “then why bother trying?”).

Well, then – isn't it enough to just tell black people to “get over it”? I mean, after all, slavery ended nearly 150 years ago – way before anyone's living memory. Why can't these people just get organized, and suck it up, and move on? When will the “healing” begin? Et cetera. Yeah, well... it's easy to say, I suppose. Try it on some Jews whose family members died in concentration camps. But what is the alternative? Who profits from all of this continued bitterness and resentment – and I guess the answer is politicians and the “black leadership” -- not to mention the vast industry (including massive government agencies and programs) devoted to “fixing” whatever is wrong (or seems to be wrong) with the black community. So part of it, I guess, is simply the tendency of people of identify with, and function as, a group – one with historical traumas and present resentments – rather than as individuals. There is, supposedly, strength in numbers – but one wonders, in this case, if there is not also weakness in numbers. When the group has a victim mentality, who among them is brave enough to stand up and speak against it?

There is another angle to all this as well – getting back to that photographic exhibition. Black communities in that era were certainly not without their “issues”, but they did, in fact, consist mostly of intact families, had a respectable rate of employment (except, I suppose, during the Depression, when people of all races, creeds, and colors were out of work), and did not have overwhelming crime and drug problems. They were cohesive – a self-contained, sustainable culture – and were not forever at knife-points (literally or figuratively) with the larger, mostly white, community. And yes, they were separate – and yes, segregation was a fact of life, on nearly all levels. Blacks and whites lived separately, by and large, with some overlap at the borders... and they certainly “mixed” when it came to the economy and the workplace. But in an essential and profound way, blacks and whites lived in different worlds – and the blacks not only made the best of it, they figured out a way to thrive, at least culturally. This is what the photos revealed – a separate world, tantamount to apartheid, but a world nonetheless thriving, respectable, and eminently livable. You could be born, grow up, live, and die in that world and maintain your dignity and self-respect. It was, in fact, more cohesive than many white communities – which was a good survival mechanism, at the very least.

But then a funny thing happened. All of a sudden we had “integration”... “block-busting”... forced busing... and all the rest of it. Blacks and whites were being forced – by the government, through such “enlightened” programs as “urban renewal” -- down each other's throats. Did this make blacks happier, enough to balance out making whites miserable? Not that I can see. What I think happened instead was that blacks went from being first-class citizens in their own world to being second-class citizens in the larger world. The “block busting” worked both ways – white ethnics were driven out of the urban areas where they had lived for generations, but black neighborhoods were also bulldozed to make room for highways, public buildings, and “the projects”. The shack with an outhouse was traded in for the “garden apartment” -- but what was the result? Did a new day dawn? What I see is mostly alienation, resentment, and crime – crime amounting to sabotage. Was this really what the great black leaders of old, like Frederick Douglass, had in mind? Or Martin Luther King Jr., even? I can't believe it. Please note that the urban riots of the 1960s did not consist of blacks pouring out of the “ghettos” and setting fire to the white suburban neighborhoods (although this was a common, if unspoken, fear at the time). No – what was put to the torch was their own neighborhoods. Suddenly it was them against – well, the whole world, really. They joined, in a self-destructive way, in the cultural genocide. They had been robbed of one birthright – a cohesive, thriving culture and community – and handed some sort of political mutation... a form of open-air prison. And who can blame them? I'm not sure the rioters had this in the front of their minds as they stormed, ransacked, and looted – but I'm talking about causes here, not conscious thought. (And in fact, some of the more thoughtful black leaders did have some insight as to what was going on, and continue to to this day – but they were a minority within a minority.)

The biggest mistake, perhaps, that the “integrators” made was to expect that blacks would even want to be “fully integrated” into the white community – with all the psychological, sociological, and cultural displacements that implies. It was a superficial and naïve view, and could only be held by people who were, themselves, culturally bereft – as liberals in academics and government typically are. There are black people who are willing to cross that divide, and more power to them – but, in my experience, most blacks are not. Even a deprived and diluted state of “blackness” is preferable to becoming a stranger in a strange land. And I say this with absolutely no prejudice as to which is “preferable” -- my years in the Washington, DC area served as an ample lesson on that point, as have visits to the South. It's a particularly low form of patronization to simply assume that the heart's desire of blacks is to be as “white” as possible.

So the exhibition, while a celebration in one way, was actually more a reflection on what has been lost – but how many stopped to ask why, or how? There is an illusion of progress even among oppressed minorities, to the extent that they assume that things are “improving” no matter the evidence. Somehow, as time goes on, things must get better – which means that the things of the past, as treasured as they are in retrospect, must have been less valuable than the “rights” of the present, no matter how hollow those might turn out to be.

But I still haven't brought up the darkest side of this whole business. Not only did blacks become trapped in a world they never made, but that world proceeded to “manage” them through such, ahem, benign programs as welfare – which contributed mightily to the break-up of black families; and the whole spectrum of affirmative action/preferences/set-asides, etc. -- which caused many whites to seethe with resentment. Then we have incarceration (wildly disproportionate and based largely on minor drug offenses); “games and circuses” (e.g. basketball – not bad per se, but...); “channeled rage” (rap, hip-hop, etc.); and abortion – which some brave black leaders have “outed” as a form of genocide. And – not to get too paranoid here, but – how many believe that the deluge of drugs into black communities was, and is, simply an accident of economics and social history? No – I call it a form of management, the way the true black radicals of the 1960s were, almost to a man (or woman), eventually neutralized by means of drugs and/or incarceration (or outright summary execution by “law enforcement”). If the legislation of the 1960s opened a Pandora's box, well then, by gosh, the white community and its minions were going to deal with the result any way they knew how – and invent new ways besides. So yes, blacks are “free”, but they are kept in a cultural and psychological (even more than an economic) prison – almost entirely invented, programmed, and managed by, guess who, whites.

So despite all of the supposed privileges, benefits, and entitlements heaped upon the black community over the past 50-odd years, I say that blacks remain second-class citizens, precisely because of those “privileges” -- because those all, without exception, are based on the unspoken assumption that blacks are helpless, or at least incompetent, misguided, and foolish – and they not only need help, but will continue to need help in perpetuity. They are, in other words, handicapped – and the pity is that much of the black leadership seems to agree. The braver ones point this out, and realize that true equality – a truly level playing field – is the only way to true emancipation. But this is a politically unpopular position, to say the least – and the irony is that it's mainly the few remaining “radicals” -- like Louis Farrakhan – who take this position. What does Farrakhan want? “Separate but equal”? A return to forced, legal segregation? I think what he wants is “separate”, and quit worrying about “equal” -- let the community grow, and thrive, and take care of itself in its own way and on its own terms. Let it be its own entity, without reference to the white community or even to the “larger culture”. And this is nothing new or even especially radical – as witness any number of thriving, vibrant white ethnic communities that existed in Pittsburgh and in most other cities in the “old days”. What was wrong with that? Well – the social “planners” and theorists and levelers saw plenty wrong with it.  Cohesive communities represent a bulwark against totalitarianism, collectivism, and tyranny – and that's why they have to be done away with, by hook or crook... by way of (alleged) good intentions and, bottom-line, by force. So in that sense black communities share a grievance – perhaps the greatest one of all – with white communities. On one side you have racial, ethnic, and religious cohesion, and on the other side the state, by which I mean the government, which cares not for the old ways and old values, but only wants people to be turned into “good citizens”, which means willing servants of the regime. The beneficiaries of “block busting” wound up with a worse deal, in a way, than the victims; at least the latter were able to migrate out to the suburbs, whereas the “beneficiaries” wound up living in a newly-formed ghetto, where they form that most pathetic and servile of all entities, a “reliable voting block”. Where is the freedom in that?

Look at those photos, folks, and consider what has been lost – and then consider how it might be regained.

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