Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
on Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, and the black inner city culture thing.
New York Times
August 1, 2004
Breaking the Silence
By HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.
Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” Barack Obama said in his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, “and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” In a speech filled with rousing applause lines, it was a line that many black Democratic delegates found especially galvanizing. Not just because they agreed, but because it was a home truth they’d seldom heard a politician say out loud.
Why has it been so difficult for black leaders to say such things in public, without being pilloried for “blaming the victim”? Why the huge flap over Bill Cosby’s insistence that black teenagers do their homework, stay in school, master standard English and stop having babies? Any black person who frequents a barbershop or beauty parlor in the inner city knows that Mr. Cosby was only echoing sentiments widely shared in the black community.
“If our people studied calculus like we studied basketball,” my father, age 91, once remarked as we drove past a packed inner-city basketball court at midnight, “we’d be running M.I.T.” When my brother and I were growing up in the 50’s, our parents convinced us that the “blackest” thing that we could be was a doctor or a lawyer. We admired Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, but our real heroes were people like Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Benjamin Mays and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Yet in too many black neighborhoods today, academic achievement has actually come to be stigmatized. “We are just not the same people anymore,” says the mayor of Memphis, Dr. Willie W. Herenton. “We are worse off than we were before Brown v. Board,” says Dr. James Comer, a child psychiatrist at Yale. “And a large part of the reason for this is that we have abandoned our own black traditional core values, values that sustained us through slavery and Jim Crow segregation.”
Making it, as Mr. Obama told me, “requires diligent effort and deferred gratification. Everybody sitting around their kitchen table knows that.”
“Americans suffer from anti-intellectualism, starting in the White House,” Mr. Obama went on. “Our people can least afford to be anti-intellectual.” Too many of our children have come to believe that it’s easier to become a black professional athlete than a doctor or lawyer. Reality check: according to the 2000 census, there were more than 31,000 black physicians and surgeons, 33,000 black lawyers and 5,000 black dentists. Guess how many black athletes are playing professional basketball, football and baseball combined. About 1,400. In fact, there are more board-certified black cardiologists than there are black professional basketball players. “We talk about leaving no child behind,” says Dena Wallerson, a sociologist at Connecticut College. “The reality is that we are allowing our own children to be left behind.” Nearly a third of black children are born into poverty. The question is: why?
Scholars such as my Harvard colleague William Julius Wilson say that the causes of black poverty are both structural and behavioral. Think of structural causes as “the devil made me do it,” and behavioral causes as “the devil is in me.” Structural causes are faceless systemic forces, like the disappearance of jobs. Behavioral causes are self-destructive life choices and personal habits. To break the conspiracy of silence, we have to address both of these factors.
“A lot of us,” Mr. Obama argues, “hesitate to discuss these things in public because we think that if we do so it lets the larger society off the hook. We’re stuck in an either/or mentality – that the problem is either societal or it’s cultural.”
It’s important to talk about life chances – about the constricted set of opportunities that poverty brings. But to treat black people as if they’re helpless rag dolls swept up and buffeted by vast social trends – as if they had no say in the shaping of their lives – is a supreme act of condescension. Only 50 percent of all black children graduate from high school; an estimated 64 percent of black teenage girls will become pregnant. (Black children raised by female “householders” are five times as likely to live in poverty as those raised by married couples.) Are white racists forcing black teenagers to drop out of school or to have babies?
Mr. Cosby got a lot of flak for complaining about children who couldn’t speak standard English. Yet it isn’t a derogation of the black vernacular – a marvelously rich and inventive tongue – to point out that there’s a language of the marketplace, too, and learning to speak that language has generally been a precondition for economic success, whoever you are. When we let black youth become monolingual, we’ve limited their imaginative and economic possibilities.
These issues can be ticklish, no question, but they’re badly served by silence or squeamishness. Mr. Obama showed how to get the balance right. We’ve got to create as many opportunities as we can for the worst-off – and “make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life.” But values matter, too. We can’t talk about the choices people have without talking about the choices people make.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. will be a guest columnist for the Op-Ed page this week. Thomas L. Friedman is on leave until October, writing a book.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, the chair of Afro-American Studies and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University…