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ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

Blacks blaming blacks

There are plenty of reasons why success has too often eluded African Americans.

October 04, 2006|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

OK, I'VE HAD enough. Enough of the blaming, the whining, the righteous posturing that sucks all the air from discussions of the problems of black people and what can be done about them.

For years I've tried to be cool and close ranks, as dictated by a tradition of African American survival and tenuous solidarity. No more. The recent coronation of yet another righteous posturer makes me realize that I have to break my silence and call out my brothers and sisters in the chattering classes who are sapping our dwindling credibility with their constant tirades against oppression and popular misunderstanding of black people.

The posturer who made me do it? Juan Williams.

Williams is a veteran reporter for newspapers and radio, the man who wrote the companion book to the vaunted "Eyes on the Prize" public television series on the civil rights movement. He is also one of a disturbing new breed of black social critics who, after having spent their careers trying to lift up the race, has decided that black people are pretty much responsible for their own decline and for perpetuating a broken culture of bling and victim politics, to name but two.

This differs from conventional black conservatism in that it seems less ideological and more experiential, and therefore more authoritative. I've lived it, it says, so I know what I'm talking about. Williams spells it out in his latest book, "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- And What We Can Do About It." Just in case you don't know what he's had enough of.

Expanding on Bill Cosby's impromptu condemnation of poor black folks a couple of years ago, Williams insists that blacks of all economic stripes are oppressing themselves with outdated notions of structural racism (and with leaders who reinforce those notions while getting paid to perpetuate them). He also says the heart of black problems lies not in history but in skewed modern values that lead to girls having babies out of wedlock and gangster-minded boys wearing their pants too low.

But Williams' most striking point is his echo of what Cosby said in a speech at the NAACP dinner commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education: that blacks have not held up their end of the bargain, particularly when it comes to education. Since 1954, the argument goes, we have frittered away the golden opportunities given to us. We were on the right track in the '60s during the civil rights movement, but since then have gone back to our wasteful ways.

Putting aside serious cause-and-effect questions about the black condition and baggy pants, I first have to ask: What bargain was that, exactly?

The Brown decision was not some grand pact with black America to repair the damage wrought by generations of legally sanctioned oppression. It was simply an order to uphold the Constitution and desegregate the public schools -- an order that took decades to effect and in many cases was rendered irrelevant because whites moved with such deliberate speed out of schools and neighborhoods where they feared blacks were coming.

Nor is "desegregation" the same as "integration" -- terms people tend to use interchangeably now. Integration implies (though hardly guarantees) equal footing and equal opportunity. If desegregation happened erratically, integration never happened at all. Yet this bargain -- the one that black people have allegedly failed to honor -- assumes that integration did happen, specifically in education, and blacks' failure on this issue has spurred all the others.

I am emphatically not saying that black leaders did all they could to keep the pressure on to meaningfully enforce Brown and other measures addressing equity. I don't disagree with Williams and even Cosby on the failure of leadership in this sense.

But black leadership didn't fail in a vacuum. A federal government -- one that was at best ambiguous about black equality -- failed right along with it.

Whites who abandoned schools, neighborhoods and local economies because of a perceived black threat failed us too.

So did the whole American culture industry, which romanticizes and commercializes the black threat -- otherwise known as the ghetto -- and turns it into gold records and high fashion, beginning with those baggy pants.

No, we're all to blame for the rotten state of Denmark. But observations like that don't sell books.

I share Williams' anger over what has gone wrong. But anger without a certain amount of compassion rooted in fact adds up to just one more rant. And surely we've had enough of those.

*

ekaplan@latimescolumnists.com

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