Sunday, August 27, 2006

Overcoming the Culture of Failure: Not Just a Message for Blacks

I read this article in the Washington Post by Juan Williams: "Banish the Bling: A Culture of Failure Taints Black America." I thought it was excellent, but I know that's easy to say for a middle class white guy. One reason I liked this article so much, though, was that I think much about this message is relevant for people of every race throughout our nation.

Williams says this about black kids living in the inner-cities:
Their search for identity and a sense of direction is undermined by a twisted
popular culture that focuses on the "bling-bling" of fast money associated with
famous basketball players, rap artists, drug dealers and the idea that women are
at their best when flaunting their sexuality and having babies.
I have spent my entire career in small towns in northern Minnesota, and I've only had two African-American students. Nevertheless, I have seen mind-sets similar to that described by Williams in too many of our Indian, Asian, and Caucasian children. It doesn't matter what race kids are or where they live; this mind-set is a recipe for failure.

Williams praises comedian Bill Cosby and echoes the message he has been spreading to blacks across the nation:

Cosby said that the quarter of black Americans still living in poverty are
failing to hold up their end of a deal with history when they don't take
advantage of the opportunities created by the Supreme Court's Brown decision and the sacrifices of civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Thurgood
Marshall and Malcolm X. ....

Cosby asked the chilling question: "What good is Brown " and all the
victories of the civil rights era if nobody wants them? A generation after those
major civil rights victories, black America is experiencing alarming dropout
rates, shocking numbers of children born to single mothers and a frightening
acceptance of criminal behavior that has too many black people filling up the
jails. Where is the focus on taking advantage of new opportunities to advance
and to close the racial gap in educational and economic achievement?
The failure to take advantage of opportunities is one of the biggest problems we have in public education today. Cosby sees this in the young blacks he talks to in the inner-cities, but I also see it in the low-performers that I've seen in the small towns where I've taught.

Williams also blasts the mainstream civil rights leaders who have been critical of Cosby for failing to address the problems within black communities that need to be overcome:
Where is the civil rights groundswell on behalf of stronger marriages that will
allow more children to grow up in two-parent families and have a better chance
of staying out of poverty? Where are the marches demanding good schools for
those children -- and the strong cultural reinforcement for high academic
achievement (instead of the charge that minority students who get good grades
are "acting white")? Where are the exhortations for children to reject the
self-defeating stereotypes that reduce black people to violent, oversexed
"gangstas," minstrel show comedians and mindless athletes?
It is true that prejudice and discrimination haven't been eliminated in the United States. It is also true that our country's history of discrimination is the reason that blacks are disproportionately poor. But it is also true that for people to overcome poverty, they must be willing to work very hard and to make sacrifices in order to make that happen. In other words, poor people must be willing to help themselves rather than being their own worst enemies. Cosby and Williams are doing a great service by spreading this message to African-Americans, but teachers around the nation see other kids and parents everyday who also need to take that message to heart.


Blogger TangoMan said...

It is also true that our country's history of discrimination is the reason that blacks are disproportionately poor.

The reason? Do you want to add some qualifiers to your statement?

BTW, you have an interesting blog and I left a lengthy comment in your post on racism.

8/27/2006 2:34 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Tangoman, I thought about whether to write "a reason" or "the reason", and I decided to go with "the reason". There may be any number of reasons why any particular African-American (or anyone else, for that matter) is in poverty, but I think past discrimination is the reason that so many are. It has only been since the 1960s that they began to be given the equal opportunities that my family has always been able to take for granted. I think the message of Cosby and Williams is that they each person has the power to overcome the circumstances they are born into, but we know that not everyone is going to do that.

By the way, I'm not sure which post on racism you're talking about. I looked back, and couldn't find your comment. You have definitey aroused my curiosity!

8/27/2006 3:05 PM  
Blogger TangoMan said...

I looked back, and couldn't find your comment.

This is the post.

I decided to go with "the reason".

Interesting. There's no way that I would walk out on that argumentative plank for I wouldn't be able to defend such a claim. Are you prepared to defend "past discrimination" as being the sole determininant of present-day outcomes?

8/27/2006 3:23 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Aha! Now I see where you're coming from. You are saying it's a matter of genetics. You have researched this subject a lot more thoroughly than I ever have, but I would still stand with my original statement.

I think 250 years of slavery, and then another 100 years of being denied decent education, housing, and jobs, created a sense of hopelessness, and that, more than anything else, is the reason that more African-Americans haven't taken advantage of the opportunities that came with the success of the civil rights movement. That, I believe, is the reason that blacks are disproportionately poor. I don't think it's genetics. I find the idea that I have a natural advantage in intelligence over Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice a little hard to swallow.

8/27/2006 5:00 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I was just thinking the other day about how my work with black kids doesn't quite jibe with what Williams and Cosby keep talking about. I never heard any of the black kids I worked with say they were afraid of "acting white" or that anyone had accused them of "acting white" or they had accused anyone of "acting white." Of course that could be because a lot of the kids I worked with were doing poorly in school! or it could be that these were the kids whose parents had the commitment to seek help for their kids even if it was from a white therapist and maybe they were more racially open-minded. But I remain unconvinced that fear of "acting white" is that main reason black kids have trouble in school.

8/31/2006 12:39 PM  
Blogger rory said...

What I would like to know is if the whole phenomenon of "acting white" is compensation for poor performance due to low performance or a cultural reaction against the racism in the country. Unfortunately there is more and more evidence that the achievement gap is largely due to nature, which means that even if the cultural problems are solved there will always be an education divide. Having said that, I whole heartedly agree that Cosby and Williams are doing their communities a great service by speaking out against the "gansta" culture that pervades not only Black America, but is creeping into society as a whole.

9/01/2006 8:21 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by again. You are obviously a very intelligent person. I've indicated in the past that my background in dealing with African-Americans leaves a lot to be desired. Your perspective is definitely appreciated.

Rory, I don't agree with everything you say, but I find myself agreeing with you on a lot of things.

9/02/2006 3:10 PM  

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