Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET
We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.
Editor's Note: Michael Eric Dyson is a University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, and author of 16 books, including the New York Times bestseller, "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How it Changed America."
Michael Eric Dyson
University Professor of Sociology, Georgetown University
As a black man who is also a professor, preacher, media commentator and author, I routinely write and talk about issues that affect the entire black community, from class warfare to the debate over hip hop. Although I write from as balanced and scholarly a perspective as possible, there’s no denying that often the subject hits home quite closely. Sometimes, it’s not merely academic.
For instance, I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the prison industrial complex. I can’t deny that my brother Everett’s condition of being locked away for life, for a murder I believe he didn’t commit, fuels my determination to see black men treated more justly and to see the criminal justice system reformed. When I visit him, and see this intelligent and gentle soul corralled like an animal, it hurts. And I don’t view him, or other men who’ve made destructive choices in their lives, through rose tinted shades. I understand the harm and pain wreaked on their families and communities by black men who choose to live beyond the law. But I also understand that persistent racial discrimination often colors how we negatively perceive black men who make mistakes, while offering far more chances to white men who err.
Often, when I visit Everett in prison, I am flooded with memories of our childhood as we came of age in Detroit’s inner city in the sixties and seventies. I think of the great soul music we listened to, the barbecues we attended, the block parties we participated in, the lessons in Sunday School, the preaching we heard, our parent’s love and protection, the go-carts our father made for us, Everett working on cars and me entering oratorical contests – two black boys, among a brood of five boys, enjoying the pleasures, and enduring the limits, of living for the city. Detroit was dubbed the murder capital of the world in our youth, and we saw our fair share of violence. We eventually took different paths – Everett became a Marine, and then a drug-dealer, and I became a teen father, lived on welfare and eventually went to college and got a Ph.D. from Princeton.
Still, I’m not seduced by the notion that I made superior choices because I was a better person. I believe that Everett is an extremely smart young man who got caught in a world of trouble – yes, by his own hand, with an assist from a society that often viewed young black males as disposable and unimportant – but who could, if given the opportunity, direct his considerable gifts to making our world more enlightened about the plight of poor, struggling black males. That’s my hope as I work diligently to free him from prison so that he can come back to society with a renewed will to offer his talent in service of our people and nation.
There are other occasions when my work has been more than academic. For instance, in my debate with comedian Bill Cosby about poor blacks and whether they’re taking responsibility for their lives, I didn’t simply disagree with the often harsh tone and condescending approach he adopted when speaking of the black poor. I chafed at the demeaning and unfair characterizations of the poor people I knew when I was in the ranks of the poor myself. Now don’t get me wrong: only a fool or a dishonest person would deny that everybody, including the poor, ought to be responsible for themselves and for how they act in the world. But we must not only demand responsibility of the poor; we must also discuss our responsibility to the poor.
Cosby and others think that if only the poor were willing to work harder, act better, get educated, stay out of jail and parent more effectively, their problems would go away. It’s hard to argue with any of that, but one could do all of this and still be in bad shape at home, work or school.
For instance, in our economy where low-skilled work is all but gone, all the right behavior in the world won’t create better jobs for the poor. And personal responsibility can’t lower the unemployment rate. The 8.9 percent black unemployment rate is twice that of whites. For black men, the unemployment rate is even higher at 9.5 percent, compared to 4 percent for white men. The median weekly income of black men 16 and over who worked full-time was seventy-eight percent of white men’s income. Plus, the minimum wage has plummeted nearly 35 percent since 1968. So even though most of the poor are working, they’re not getting fairly paid.
Personal responsibility alone can’t fix that, but our social responsibility to the poor can.
Martin Luther King said that when our society places “the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or guaranteed income, dignity will come within the reach of all.” King believed that the obsession with personal responsibility for the poor was wrong because it let society off the hook. And blasting the poor is misled. “We do much too little to assure decent, secure employment,” King said. “And then we castigate the unemployed and underemployed for being misfits and ne’er-do-wells. We still assume that unemployment usually results from personal defects; our solutions therefore largely tend to be personal and individual.” Instead, we need to look at “the causes and cures of the economic misfortunes” of the poor and seek to “establish income security.”
For those who say, “Just get a good education and you’ll get a good job,” things aren’t quite that easy. Seventy percent of black students in the nation attend schools in inner cities that are composed largely of minority students. These schools are often located in poor neighborhoods with far fewer resources and a lower tax-base than suburban schools. And the education that poor kids get shows. Personal responsibility alone can’t fix poor neighborhoods or lousy schools, but social responsibility should prompt us to argue for greater resources educational parity.
It doesn’t take a bunch of money to love your kids and pay attention to them. But if you’re working two jobs with no benefits, taking time off to attend a conference with teachers may cost you precious resources – or even one of those jobs. It’s hard enough to parent with ample resources; poor parents are often caught in a bind of choosing between spending time with their children or working for the few dollars they earn to take care of them. It’s not a choice they should have to make. If we work for child care and better jobs for the poor – and for better health care too – then they might be able to exercise their responsibility more fully.
Should we take responsibility for family planning to stop fly-by-night baby-making? Yes, but the numbers have actually gone down: in 1970, there were 72 pregnancies per 1,000 for black females between the ages of 15 and 17, while in 2000, there were 30.9 pregnancies per 1,000. Should the poor stop killing each other? Of course, but that won’t be achieved solely by marches against homicide that both Mr. Cosby and I have led in Philadelphia. It also takes community policing – and more quality work won’t hurt.
Should the poor stay out of jail? Sure, but we can’t deny that society locks our children up for offenses that bring white kids a mere slap on the wrist. That doesn’t give us a license to misbehave; we shouldn’t wait until poverty is destroyed to act responsibly. But as we fight poverty we increase the likelihood that the vulnerable will be more responsible. (Although irresponsibility among intellectuals, comedians, leaders and preachers suggests the poor are often unfairly targeted while the sins of the rich are barely noticed).
Should the poor practice self-help? King said it’s “all right to say to a man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” If we’re going to hold poor people responsible, let’s give out more boots.