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Two Brothers, Two Paths: Shades of Race

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.

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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.

soundoff (98 Responses)
  1. Donna from Illinois

    Thank you Dr. Dyson for presenting a more balanced approach to the challenges facing Black Americans today. Too bad you weren't given more air time during the series, so that All of America, not just us bloggers, could hear and better understand our plight. Given the tone of the previous commentors, there is still so much educating that needs to be done and unfortunately Soledad didn't even scratch the surface. We are a complex people. Now that CNN has begun, it is only right that they take it to its rightful completion. I say CNN should try it again. They owe us that. This time do it right. Include thoughtful perspective on the history of Black enslavement in America, along with our triumphs. All of this is part of our experience being Black in America. I am deeply offended that only one part was covered – the part that all of America sees on the front page of every newspaper every day in America. This is not groundbreaking.

    July 28, 2008 at 12:08 am |
  2. Kanani

    Scot – Reading your comments as proved to me that MENSA needs to be re-examined. For someone to continually perpetuate stereotypes by saying that "blacks don't dress for success" leads me to believe you have only limited exposure to blacks in America and to what standard are you judging success. It is a standard unfortunately set by white America and the media that completes your definition of success.
    What I have observed is this: When I hear a loud stereo, 99% of the time it is a young teenager of all races. Working in the justice system, people of color I encounter are successful and dress accordingly to the "dress code" and , when blacks get together in conversation with their "friends", it is probably not meant for you to understand. I would love to be invited to one of your "white" conversations with your friends and see if I would be able to understand what you are discussing, although I doubt I will ever be invited because of the color of my skin. My final thought to you is that you mention you cannot find a NAAWP. You are just looking in the wrong places. Most organizations founded in this country are inherantly "white", made by white people for white people. The list is too long but think about it? Organizations like the NAACP had to be formed out of necessity to help fight for rights and justices ALL Americans were supposed to have. For someone who claims to have studied people for years, you must have failed the test because you missed the point!

    As such, you have missed the point of Dr. Dyson. It is not just about race in this country because we all know race is a social construct (at least I hope people know that) but also about social class and poverty.

    Reading Suggestion: "White Like Me" by Tim Wise, he has a great perspective on Social Justice and Privelege in America.

    July 27, 2008 at 11:33 pm |
  3. mayang

    I am an asian who lives and works here in America. I am considered a minority and probably a 4th class citizen of this country. From the country where I came from, biases with respect to color, sex, and appearances or even body stature do exist. Same as anywhere, rich people gets preferential treatments compared to the average and below average income people. And I know America is not an exception. However, this gave me more reasons to work and study harder, to act and dress appropriately, behave properly and be more responsible for my actions and to make the right but often not easy choices.. It was a struggle but with time, I got the RESPECT that I deserved. Despite the ups and downs in life , AMERICA is still a land of opportunity. And mind you, I ’ve been to quite a number of countries and I can say, as a whole ,America is the finest and most pleasant Society that I’ve ever seen. One of the biggest obstacle to prosperity here is INDOLENCE.. It is a choice..it is a mental attitude. RESPECT is earned , you don’t just ask for it..Take it from small woman, who came with just enough English vocabulary, hardly knows a single soul and only armed with the hope and dream that life will be much better in America. Anyone who is determined to succeed will have a million of reasons to achieve it but for those who are not ,will always have a million of alibis to fail.

    July 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm |
  4. Anne

    Why can't we all remember that we are all descended from a black mother? White people have been white for only a short period of time in the history of humans. We all need more education.

    July 27, 2008 at 7:07 pm |
  5. Trotter

    It amazes that we're still having this conversation about skin color in terms of who will succeed and who will not based upon whether or not you're a caramel hue or dark chocolate. The challenge here is to teach (now there's a word one doesn't hear much less used in today's world when talking to and about a child) our children regardless of skin color albeit " dark black to "I didn't he/she was black?" that they are beautiful and they possess the intelligence to be whatever they want to be in life! Their doesn't mean they will have any less of an opportunity than anyone else. Instilling that kind of self confidence and positive attitude will do wonders. We all know if we can't trust mom or dad, who can we trust?

    We as a culture need to get over this color issue that seems to divide a community that at the end of day even for those that can "pass" will still be deemed as black once it is learned of their mixed heritage. In fact, being of a darker hue takes the pressure off of not having to worry about where one fits in.

    Education is the key. When I look at immigrants from all over the world that arrive here in the US and excel yet can barely speak the language, I say to myself, something is wrong with this picture.

    But the newly arrived immigrants get the big picture early on. By educating themselves, keeping a close knit community that helps each other out, avoiding the materialism pitfalls of trying to live above their means in order to keep up with those infamous jones'. They know hard work, sacrafice and a personal commitment to be their best can help achieve their dreams.

    Enough said............

    July 27, 2008 at 7:02 pm |
  6. K

    I am a 25 year old college student in the Northeast. I just want to say that I think that times have changed–especially with the new generation of young people. I am white, but I have had roommates who were hispanic (daughter of illegal immigrants), black, and white, as well as roommates from China, India, and Kenya. I have not in any way seen any of them as being different from me. Many of them were more than roommates, they were my friends. With all of the people we were every around and in all situations, we were always treated equally. I think that perhaps in some places in this country, racial discrimination might exist, but I also do think that there are other places (many universities), where this is no longer a problem. I do understand, however, how it is definitely possible that people from older generations would have encountered racism at different points in their lives, and their could still exist a more significant likelihood of discrimination occurring within the older population of white people. Times are changing though. Things are not the same as they were in the past.

    To Tamra, I am sorry that your brothers were searched at school, but my goodness, in this post-columbine era, if any child suspects in any way that another one has a gun, school officials, MUST act immediately (by searching) to determine if a weapon is indeed present. An officer would HAVE to take the word of a child who says there is a gun. The blame in this case lies with the child who made the report for either accidentally or intentionally misleading school officials. From the officer's/school's point of view, I don't think that this had anything to do with race.

    July 27, 2008 at 6:53 pm |
  7. Robin

    The year is 2008.
    How far have we truly come?
    Being a single parent in today's society is not easy.
    The children of today are put in situations that we as adults have problems manuvering around ourselves.
    All we tell them is to reach higher. Think bigger. Do better.
    How can they when you go to their schools where the teacher problems control the classroom. Lack of school equipment and other things that would help in their development . I once went and spent a day with my daughter at school just to see why she was having so much problems. Teachers were taking and needing anger management classes. Most had no control over their class at all. Their were students who came to class with out a pencil or piece of paper , their only purpose for the day was to be as disruptive as possible.
    School is nothing like it used to be. Try going to your child's school an see.
    That is what my children have to deal with away from home.
    I have to work two jobs just so that we can live. I can give up one job then what do I give up, rent or food, Health care or heat?
    It becomes so easy for others to discuss the fate of others less fortunate then them.
    I also find it amazing that we can send millions and billions to other countries and yet our own children suffer.

    July 27, 2008 at 6:43 pm |
  8. james johnson

    there are over 800 million black africans in this world, and the ones with the best life opportunities live in the U.S. Where black Africans dominate a political system, misery follows, take a look at Rawanda and Haiti. Dyson took the blue pill giving him the liberal lobotomy so he must believe black failures are due to white racism or colonialism or any of the surrogates that a generation of PhDs have infected Western Civilization with.
    The fact is blacks lack the genetic capability of comprehending and acting on written conceptual information. Google 15 points.... oh, you get Obamas lead . then google 15 points iq. you get the truth, which your professorship must deny.

    July 27, 2008 at 6:23 pm |
  9. Linda Kay

    Why do people have to classify themselves as black Americans or white Americans? Why can't we just all be Americans & live harmoniously?

    July 27, 2008 at 6:15 pm |
  10. Christine

    I have read all of the comments and my observation is this. How many of you were born to a single black mother in the projects? How many of you have only lived on welfare, low income housing, and this single black mother working to two jobs to take care of her children? Yes, having a baby at a young age is a mistake, two you need to think, and three or more you have something seriously wrong with your logic. These young men and women coming from these young mothers both need support on both ends not just financially. How many of you live in a community were there is a Boys and Girls Club? How many of you participate in the lives of the children attending these facilities? These children who attend structured types of settings and have responsible adults in there lives are more than likely to succeed in life. This never ending cylce stems from generations of girls and boys being raised with one parent and more than you realize a grandparent. I believe if we were to raise our children with our parents and grandparents old school way of living, our children would be much more respectful, educated, appreciative, and have an abundance of self-worth. Educating our children to what is seen on television is for entertainment and not the blueprint of life. Life imitates art and if the only form of art our children see is "hood life" on television society along with the parents are to blame. Who pays for the cds with the explicit language or subscribe to the cable stations that broadcast the negative depictions of women, children and young men? .........We do!!!! All talk and no action will not solve any of our neighborhood problems, our state problems or our nations problems. It's time to understand if we all continue to live our lives in a glass bottle just observing others from within, we will never be able to touch the lives of ones we considered a lost cause.

    July 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm |
  11. Daniel

    I like M. E. Dyson. He is thoroughly knowledgeable about the social sciences, and social factors that cause current social inequities. I wish he would argue more about anthropological, and linguistic anthropological factors that perpetuate worlviews, or what Mikhail Bakhtin called "heteroglossia." That is, assuming that he knows these things, which would argue on behalf of other branches of the social sciences that he may not have much practice in. Also, analyses using Pierre Bourdieu's practice theory would also explain much of the argument of cultural practices and the variation of individual habitus in social groupings.

    July 27, 2008 at 6:05 pm |
  12. Ericka

    Well as a black women in her mid 30's this special is valid in that it is always interesting to read the comments and ideas of others. While I feel alot of what we are responsible for as black americans does come from within ourselves....to a degree I do see the social responsibility....somewhat. There are many people who abuse social and community services which are in place to educate or help provide for the poor. And there are NO color boundaries to this abuse. But that seems to not be mentioned.

    And for those of you who mentioned things like "glad to see minorities can get in school on my tax dollar" and "I dont see a NAAWP" it makes me laugh aloud. Let me remind you of the MANY years that minorities were NOT able to obtained advanced educations because of the white leaders who led those institutions. And why we have black universities that thrive TODAY. And for those who made comments about struggling to pay for college you can apply for a miniority scholarship at a black college....in case you were not aware a black college just had its first white valedictorian there on a scholarship. And NAACP was put into action to provide equal rights to colored people since we were treated BELOW EQUAL....so you see white america has always had the NAAWP. We didnt have rights to most things until we as a people decided to fight for them. It didnt matter if it was the right to vote, attend a white college, drink from a public fountain a white man drank from, sit at the front of the bus, etc.

    But as a black woman who has many white friends that are very close to me I will say that in this day and age I am fortunate to be able to meet close friends that are of another race and in public interact with them. Because my ancestors had to lay the ground work for this to be possible today. But will my white friends ever understand what its like to be black? NO

    July 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm |
  13. Misa

    To the person named "Eddie"...I'm not sure why i'm even responding your post, but since I absolutely can't resist the urge...here it goes.

    I believe it to be quite apparent that you have a "color" complex which has seriously clouded your ability to stay grounded in reality. I hope you understood what I just wrote.

    Second...You mentioned that there have been plenty of ....(ahem..i dare quote) "Many dark skin black men have made their marks in this nation than light skin ones anyway. Think Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc."

    Pardon me as I step down to your level to make you realize your blunder.....Malcom X was not "dark skinned".

    Phew...I will step back up now. It was hard for me....but I tried.

    You are exactly the type of brother that would benefit from a well funded education, and perhaps you are a product of one that local, state, and federal funds forgot. So sad to see you fall victim to the what also divides people in the black community.

    Yes, the good ol fight between Light Skinned black and Dark skinned blacks. How sad that you subscribe to such a petty, uneducated, childish, ignorant, prejudiced thought. You claim that Dyson has a plantation mentality? Brother you are the living breathing and somewhat thinking reality of what some slave masters did to divide us in the first place! So who's still on the plantation? You.

    Peace "Eddie".....realize that the "noose" never cared about what shade of black we were....realize that the policemen's "Baton" doesn't either. Malcom caught hell just as much as King did.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:58 pm |
  14. Ignacio Pullum

    Well how do you explain the Kenyans, Nigerians, Ghanians, and Jamaicans that come to America and take success to a higher level?

    July 27, 2008 at 5:57 pm |
  15. Sam

    @ Krystle – my mother has been an academic advisor for over a dozen years, and sadly, over the years, she's experienced more and more cases like your boyfriends (just google "felony employment"). In addition to the employment challenges, if a person has a drug-related felony, they can't get federal assistance for a college education; so much for helping former convicts – people who have served their time – rehabilitate. I wish you both the best of luck!

    @Melissa – regarding the color/gender similarities – I completely agree. I was thinking as I read all the previous comments about all of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) discrimination I have experienced as a female. While there is overt discrimination of blacks, I think the most damaging discrimination is the aggregate of subtle discrimination. For example Mat@7:37 highlighting the correlation between the concentration of blacks and crime – while an element of that is the black culture, there is an element of that that is not the black culture but American culture's treatment of blacks. Dyson summed it up well, "But we must not only demand responsibility of the poor; we must also discuss our responsibility to the poor."

    July 27, 2008 at 5:52 pm |
  16. Katherine

    Mr. Dyson, as a white, female, non-traditional college student, I have to applaud you whole-heartedly for your efforts in trying to enlighten the public about the plight of the poor, but that of the black poor specifically.

    I have read your book on Hurricane Katrina and the information in therein was not only eye-opening for me, but also for my classmates.

    Please don't ever allow yourself to be silenced by the majority. We won't be the majority for long, but most white people have closed their eyes to that fact. I can only hope that when our current minorities become the majority, that we don't find ourselves facing the same racial discrimination that we continue to blindly subject minorities to now.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:48 pm |
  17. bob

    Dyson has spent his entire life blaming history, whites, economics, culture, fate, and the host of intangibles for the plight of individuals who make bad choices and are held accountable for them. This is moral cowardice and Dyson is part of the problem.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:47 pm |
  18. Mike

    Dr. Dyson

    I think your article is well-written and insightful, but I have to respectfully disagree. I take exception to this line:

    "And personal responsibility can’t lower the unemployment rate."

    Please explain how personal responsibility is not one factor that affects if a person is hired/keeps a job. If a person (black or white or yellow or red) is not fully prepared for a job interview and is not hired–whose fault is that? If a person (black or white or yellow or red) is hired for a job but constantly shows up late, or is not prepared, or is not professional, or not dressed correctly, or simply doesn't do the work required-whose fault is that? Personal responsibility can lower the rate. Now, I understand there are other factors that play into employment figures, but to argue that P.R. has no factor is simply irresponsible.

    Finally, to Melissa: Why do your parents feel the need to send your brother to a private college? If they don't have the money, send him to a public college. I had to take out loans for all my college tuition because my parents (both college educated) didn't have the money. That's life. A public college degree is better than nothing, no?

    July 27, 2008 at 5:46 pm |
  19. Nate

    I believe the whole report was a joke. Its nothing I did not know. Why didn't you report on the companies found guilty for discrimination. I didn't you show undercover investigations. Why did you not report on the racist universities and the hiring practices of major corporations.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:44 pm |
  20. MBL

    People who say racism doesn't exist in the US are blind. Racism is alive and well in the US. However, I firmly believe it's getting better. To blame the white man only for the problems is wrong. Years ago I had a young black man in class who wanted to take Latin, but he was learning disabled so his counselor didn't want him to take the class. In the parent meeting, the counselor told him if he took such a difficult class, he might fail and then he wouldn't be able to play football. His mother stood up, leaned across the desk and told his counselor she had a son who played football, and he was in prison. If this son wanted to take Latin, he would take Latin. The young man not only took and passed Latin, he continued to have a successful football career and ended up going to a Division 1 school on full ride, not because of the color of his skin, but because of his dedication and determination. He went on to graduate from the university with a degree in communications. This young man was from a poor family. He grew up with a single mother. He lived in a southern city that fully believed its poor citizens were disposable, especially its poor citizens of color. But he was determined to take advantage of the opportunities out there for him, and he changed his life. I've seen the same thing happen again and again. And I've seen other incredibly smart young men make different choices. Choices like gang involvement and selling drugs because of easy money. And I've watched those young men die in drive-by shootings or go to prison. Some of those young men are children of gang members who were brought up in that culture, but others have strong mothers and grandmothers who fight to keep their boys off that path and lose. Rarely are their fathers in the home. Often they're not involved in their children's lives at all.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:43 pm |
  21. samantha

    I am sorry but most of the people who comment on here regarding social responsibility are IGNORANT. Did someone reallys suggest that poverty has no impact on crime??? The more I read these comments the more I realize that racism will always exist because white people have this attitude of superiority. The common and apparent theory of whites seems to be that black people are irresponsible and are only poor because they lack values. This is BS! The plain truth is is that in this society most people are not going to get degrees and the further away you are from the norm, the less likely it is that you will get one.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  22. Ren.

    Some may have heard of a level playing field. But do they really know that some can even try to speak of a level playing field. In the government and corporate America sure there have been some leaps and bounds but for a few to attain high levels of acheivement but the vast majority that is kept out of those positions and any positions at all is a result of a non-level playing field in those entities.

    There is so much insidious and hidden racism and assaults that plague those institutions that they affect black people the greatest but particularly black men since the dominant culture or society still finds it easier and more easier and more comfort in hiring and tolerating the black woman over the black man. Which is why there is such a disproportionate amount of devastating conditions that continually confront the black male. The systematic methods of discrimination, alienation and degradation that the black man faces continues to allow the words of Dr.MLK to resonate home, "the last hired and the first fired!" It's quite real.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:30 pm |
  23. James

    To Jim, Phil, Theresa:
    Please let me know where I can sign up to let the government pay off my nearly $200,000 in undergraduate and proffesional school loans. I must have missed that seminar on free money for black people at my public high school. You all sound like people who blame 10% of the population for why you never got the break or promotion you felt you deserved. The policies that have been put into place to give minorities access to higher learning were not put there because black people needed to be encouraged to reach higher. They were instituted because of institutionalized (city, state, and to a certain extent federal) efforts to restrict blacks from being able to have not just education but careers and professions. Today, the laws do a great deal to level the playing field but they do not change people's hearts as you all clearly show. Black individuals do have to look in the mirror to ascertain what part they play in their own lack of acheivement. But because of this country's recent history (yes, the 50's, 60's, and 70's still qualify), you can't say that starting the 100 yard dash with one participant at the starting line (white competitor) and another (black competitor) starting in the locker room with combat boots on have the same opportunity or challenges to reach the finish line. Things are not equal but they are much fairer. To deny either of those realities would be to lie to yourself as a white person and as a black person in America. People may have been looked down on because of Irish or catholic backgrounds, but no one else has been defined as three fifths of a person by the Constitution or had to have mention of their color or race specifically to say they were included in the rights supposedly for all.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:27 pm |
  24. Earl Manchester, WA

    It may be a difficult concept but accepting responsibility and ownership for ones own life is not transferable, regardless of skin color. Just like a newly stricken blind man, quadriplegic or amputee we ALL have difficulties to overcome. There are no guarantee's of special consideration or privilidge. There are no promises of an obstacle free path as we journey down lifes road.

    It is not the varing hue's of black and white skin that limit our abilities to a successful and happy life but rather our own tunnel vision that allows our minds to blame our failures and difficulties on everthing other than our failure to make good life decisions.

    So get over it. We are what we are. Come together as one vice you fill in the blank American. If you think the other guy has it better make that pronouncement AFTER you've walked in his/her shoes.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:19 pm |
  25. neal

    "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. "

    Why should we take the opinion of an Author/professor/teacher that sees race before accomplishments?

    Also, it seems racist, or at presumptuous, that debating hip hop affects the entire black community. Are you saying that I can ask the next "black" person I see about the recent sale of Death Row Records for the affects on the entire black community? I am sure that would be seen as racist.

    I found your essay interesting but a view point based on race. Views based on race are never productive. IMO. I guess you dont share that opinion.

    Thanks

    July 27, 2008 at 5:12 pm |
  26. michael

    It is amazing the lack of education and self-reflection that is exhibited in the comments made on this board. People are forgetting that the state of black males in our society is part of a vicious cycle that began decades , even centuries, ago when blacks really were treated like garbage and were subsequently forced into destructive lifestyles. The subjugation of blacks led to lack of education and crime. This is where it all started.

    It is completely invalid to say reference one's personal experience of the majority of black people being lazy, disruptive, or dysfunctional, because this dysfunction is a product of American history, NOT the product of a genetic disposition.

    Do you really believe that the quality of education in an inner city public school is the same as in a suburban public school? That is a simple example of the discrepancy between opportunities afforded to various strata of society.

    Believe me, I despise most rap music, the materialist culture perpetuated by black celebrities, and so on. I think personal responsibility is absolutely paramount to not just blacks, but all Americans. But the problems is that white people see things they dont like about black people, and rather than analyzing the situation, they relegate those things to being an effect of skin color...which is truly a misguided and ignorant perspective.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:02 pm |
  27. Toromoreno

    The best thing that has come from these specials is the conversations I've been reading on the blogs. What I sense is that there is a whole other Black America that feels tired of the stereotypes that should be associated with poverty, ghetto culture and modern nihilism which is always pinned on minorities, especially blacks. As a first generation American with latino roots, I have always loved the story of Black America - my heroes growing up were MLK, Malcolm X, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Coltrane - where are these superstars now in the minds of America? No where. In a similar way, the picture of Latinos the majority of Americans have is not one that talks about Cesar Chavez, Arturo Schomberg, Luis and Walter Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya or any of the many Americans of hispanic and latino descent who have made positive contributions. No, instead all we ever hear is BANG, BANG ... another one of us dead; another one of us imprisoned.

    July 27, 2008 at 5:01 pm |
  28. scott

    I understand that there is a huge gap in pay, social status, and fairness when it comes to the black community. However, I also see many hypocrisies.

    When I lived in an urban, low-income area of the city (I was paying my dues and working a low-waged job to get on my feet), I noticed something strange every time I went to the grocery store. Me, the white-as-wonder bread working boy would walk the few blocks to the store (because I didn't own a car) and I would see individuals drive up in very expensive cars with a lot of chrome and other frills. Those same individuals would get out, walk into the grocery store, fill a cart, and then pay for it using their welfare card. Then, they would break out a huge wad of cash, and buy their cigarettes and booze with that.

    I had to wonder, how is it that they can afford to drive a brand new car, wear shiny new nikes and half-pound of gold around their neck and still get welfare. Yet, I had to shop at Payless and K-mart, not drive any car, and still pay for my own groceries while making just over minimum wage. I'm not saying this is a norm, but I saw a lot of it. I can tell you, that type of behavior often leads others to believe that somehow these individuals are milking the system, and my tax money goes to support that behavior.

    I grew up as a poor military brat, and understand what it's like to live off of a small salary with a big family, but I don't understand taking handouts and living above your tax-reported means.

    Where's the balance? I'm not trying to be mean; I just don't understand the mindset.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:58 pm |
  29. eric/stl

    I in many respects agree with Mr. Dyson. However in respect to Mr. Cosby and those like him....I feel its very hipocritical to speak down on the same class of people that supported his career from the very begininng. He and so many others whom after reaching the arrived
    status, they become judgemental of those who are still where they have come from. It may be good for them donate large sums of money to colleges and universities, but they for the most part dont have any dealing with those of the so called poor and disenfranchised. We must not forget on our rise to social and economic acceptance, from we came....

    July 27, 2008 at 4:41 pm |
  30. ME

    Here, here...Plenty of $ out there for minorities to go to college. I myself was incarcerated at age 18 until age 27. Now, at age 33, I am a fully funded doctoral candidate who, interestingly enough, studies judgment and decision-making. In deed, if you don’t make good decisions, then someone will eventually make them for you. Point is, there needs to be a clear deterrents and swift justice to those who are set on making bad decisions, black, white, or whatever. However, there also needs to be an alternative path that nurtures and encourages those who want to make good decisions, even if they may have made some bad ones. Some of our convicted felons are, in fact, redeemable.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:37 pm |
  31. Kris

    I truly believe when the black community decides to stop the very things that get them in trouble, the rest of society has no reason to change the way the act or don't act. I find it hard to feel sympathy to any part of our society that idolizes rap lyrics that call women b****** and degrade them over and over. I find that the arguement that it is okay for blacks to call and use the word n***** and whites can't to be so outlandish that it takes away any credibilty to the black cause. I also find it distressing that whites are blamed for all the black persons whoes and sometimes unproven allegations. When the black people quit finding reasons to separate themselves from the rest of society and say we just don't understand them. When they quit using slavery as a catch-all and when they get the point they are generation from being an african-american, the are American. And when any racist or bigot gets over their hatred and intolerance, maybe there will be a chance for change.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:30 pm |
  32. kalila

    Let's get real people. How long can we keep denying the fact that blacks are at a disadvantage when it comes to almost every aspect of life? The education system in the inner cities where most blacks attend school is horrible. The lack of certified and quality teachers are at an all time high while the resources needed to educate the most needy children are at an all time low. Success starts with education and until we can begin to educate all children regardless of the socio- economic status they where born into, then it will be a never ending cycle of poverty and violence!

    July 27, 2008 at 4:25 pm |
  33. Fern

    I read Professor Dyson's article with interest, as well as the comments. One of the things that I don't see here is that in order to move forward, we must understand our past. Do any of you recall 'grown folks' saying "you must know where you came from to know where you are going"?

    I am a black divorced mom of 3 sons. I have educated my sons to ensure they know 'where we have been' by taking them to the library and reading select books to them constantly when they were young. I did not wait for the schools to teach them about thier history or ancestors – the braveness of Black men, the strength and the intellectual courage and strength it took for the disparate group of people brought here on slave ships to survive. And for those of you who believe I raised militant children, no, I didn't. I raised my children to never treat people in such a way as negative as others treat them or treated their ancestors. I am happy to say that my 2 college educated, gainfully employed sons and my youngest son who is in college are good men. The work hard, they are respectful and they live by the words of Christ "Love One Another" – even though they are no longer church goers.

    My point in this is that it is much easier to see the future when you know the past & you deal with it constructively. (Deal with your past so it won't mess up your future).

    And for those of you who think that there is a lot of money for Black children in college, can you please send me that information? My sons and I both took loans to put them through college & we are still paying them back. My youngest is taking loans to make his way through school and will pay them back. We qualify for NO governement grants or aid. While I agree that some Black children get grants and other types of aid, I find it no different than some of my friends children who received scholorships to schools because of their sports ability (rowing, tennis, track), whose grades and SAT scores were not as good as my sons. Life's not fair – but I would never let that stop me from providing the best education I could for my children.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:24 pm |
  34. jc-NY

    As a black man I know and hear all the things that we as black men have going against us. I can look at those negatives (and God knows they are many) and justify to myself why I should be a failure if someone doesn't come along to give me a boot or a boost. I, however, have chosen not to rely on anyone but myself and to work as hard as it takes to realize the success that I dream of.

    While doing so, if anyone wants to drop off a boot in my path along the way, that will be fine. I believe and know that my success will always depend on my own, pure, burning desire. I have also resolved that I will not allow any person, nor society or government to dampen my desire or to abscure my goals.

    I know many who have a similar mindset, and thank God, we are not doing too badly at all, even though we came to this country twenty one years ago with very very little. Anyone who know that he/she has some distance to walk but doesn't have a boot, just get up and start walking, you might just be surprised how many you will find along your route.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:23 pm |
  35. Fynnba

    Fellows- CNN hit the nail right on the head, period! the issue with blacks in America should no more be racism, it should be SELF RESPONSIBILITY. Let me state why; i am African who flew here (US) with less than $200.00 to my name in the year 2000 and between then and now i hold a master's degree! I attended a private college @ 26.000/year and paid my way thru with hard work and perseverance.gradaute school was a free ride with assistantships. i am not an isolated case, i no most of my friends who went thru the same route. so where's the excuse for those born and bred in America?? with all the opportunities avaialable to us, yet still refusing to take advantage of them, and have the nerves to blame "white America." we've blamed them enough, now let's rise up and take on the mantle of SELF RESPONSIBILITY and we'll change our lives around for the better.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:20 pm |
  36. Steve

    You know everyone has an excuse to fail. I could say that because I got my Ph.D in chemistry at USC (which is ranked 60th in chemistry) I will never get a great job. Or I could say that because I am only 5'8" I will never be a good basketball player. As long as you keep living with these excuses and accepting them you will fail and then you will justify it so it doesn't look so bad. However, if you quit blaming others and just focus on what you need to do to succeed even if it means you are highly disadvantaged your chances of success increase dramatically. I am not saying that growing up i the ghetto is not depressing and leads one to empathy. You have to quit justifying your failures and make it appear that failure is not option. I mean the middle class is getting squeezed out, but I can't sit in pitty and blame the rich by saying that the big oil men are killing with the oil problem and the Iraq war, or blame the rich for the housing crisis. I just have to keep plugging away and work harder than the next guys to get into that upper class system. YOU CAN'T GIVE YOURSELF AN EXCUSE TO FAIL IN LIFE.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:09 pm |
  37. Leslie

    Ok, I have been watching this series since it began and the bottom line is this. African american people can't continue to blame the world for our woes. The answers will be found within ourselves and in our communities. I will tell you that i am black 33 year old female that was born to father that that was one of 16 kids,poor from the south. my grandma was beaten and disrespected by my grandfather. Out of all of those kids, some turned out to be very successful,highly educated and some got into drugs,bad men/women and crime. They all grew up around the same people. My dad mad a CHOICE not to be uneducated when neither of his parents could read or write, He made a choice not to leave his kids,get into drugs etc. We need to stop making excuses. I believe in rehabilitation and assistance for those who need it and those willing to give something back. For example, if you have fallenon financial hard times and you have to apply for government assistance to get your life back in order, you should have to do something in return. (volunteer, go to mandatory parenting, job search something.) KNOWONE should get something for nothing.The other problem is we have too many kids.Love doesn't pay the bills and if we can't afford the ones we have, Why do we have the right to continue to bring kids into the world. I work in the correctional system in the city that i live in. I have worked with juvenile offenders and adults. Coming to jail has become a routine for many of our people. Its said to say that some of them continue coming and they will tell you that. Alot of the men and women of my age group want instant gratification, willing to do anything for the love of a man/woman and don't even love theirselves. Bill Cosby is Right on<No more excuses, we need to stand up. To my fellow black women, Stop chasing these good for nothing men(whether black,white or other) There are good men out there but you have to be right by yourself and your kids first. God will deliver the right man when HE thinks you are ready. Love yourself. You be in control of you and set a the best example for your children. It starts in the mirror. One person at a time. Spread the message of responsibility and be ready for a little backlash from people that aren't ready to hear the truth. Trust me, I get it all the time.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:08 pm |
  38. Gerry

    Krystle..........................Felony Records not only follow blacks. My son and I are both white and he has the same problem at 20 years old. A felony does not care what color you are.......... Neither does the person who won't hire a felon. I told my son when he was growing up he is responsible for his own actions when he is old enough to know better. He was old enough to know better. Was your husband over 13 years old when he commited his ? Tell him to live with his past he created himself.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:04 pm |
  39. Kim

    After reading many of the above comments, I think that many people confuse poor w/criminal. The victims here are the children that are already here, the children that are already experiencing the poor education, one parent households, parents working hard to keep food and a roof over their heads. Parents that are not parenting these children. We are in a vicious cycle and social responsibility is necessary to break this cycle.

    Some of you say, just stay out of jail. To whom are you speaking. Certainly not the children who do not have control of their situations. And if you are speaking to their parents, what happens when they do not stay out of jail or stop having children or stop using. We have to reach them where we can, which is at school, show them something better, provide them something better. That means improving the schools (books, teachers etc) That is social responsibility.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:04 pm |
  40. Dr. H-W, Sociologist

    I am intrigued with the direction of this discussion. As I read Dr. Dyson’s message above, it seemed to be primarily a message of hope, guided by religious teachings. Dr. Dyson suggests we as a nation must turn from obsession with finding reasons to blame and condemn individuals, and look toward ways in which we might help those in need. Social responsibility is the assumption that we have a role to play in making our communities, and those of our children, healthier. Dr. Dyson argued that our nation seems to obsess on blaming individuals for their circumstances, but fails to recognize the role of unhealthy social environments in shaping the lives of children. He argued that we as a nation might become more healthy, more humane, if we would devote more attention toward taking social responsibility for helping our brothers and sisters in need. Blaming those who experience inhumane living conditions, and blaming them for developing otherwise irrational responses toward their inhumane living conditions, does not make us on the outside more humane. It confirms us as supporters of the inhumane conditions our American brothers and sisters, and their children, must suffer daily. To not act against injustices is clearly an act of complicity.

    In the Old and New Testaments, the Torah and the Qu’ran, as well as all other religious teaching I have known, there are a few consistent, basic commandments. These commandments demand that if we wish to call ourselves a good society (or a Christian society), we must BE a good society – we must perform acts of social justice – we must serve the least among us. If we read these religious texts, we will see that we are commanded to assume social responsibility for helping the poor – the widows and orphans in our communities. Today, these widows and orphans are the single mothers around us, in too many cases trying to raise children in the absence of fathers.

    Most of the comments I have read here suggest to me that the writers do not believe they have any social obligation to care for these children who need food, adequate shelter, guidance and support. Most of the readings suggest that Dr. Dyson’s point regarding the need to assume social responsibility for reducing poverty either went right over the readers’ heads, or that the readers disagree with the assertion that we are called to serve each other, and especially, those who experience poverty. Perhaps for too many Americans, social responsibility means a responsibility not to impose on others. Perhaps social responsibility means to some a responsibility not the need help from others. Unfortunately, these are not examples of social responsibility. They are examples of irresponsibility toward others. If we wish a healthier world for our children, then we must work toward creating a healthier world for our children.

    July 27, 2008 at 4:00 pm |
  41. Kamesha

    In regards to Scott's comment, I do have a BA and an MBA and I am an African American only 27 years old. Your comments were sort of ignorant to say that blacks are the one's pumpin loud music and do not speak correctly. My friends and I find it very frustrating that when two caucasion people are talking with each other, their diction is normal, But because I am black, when someone caucasion speaks to me, I am usually addressed as "Girl !" and all of a sudden this perfect speaking individual has a slang tone of voice with me because I am black and it is assumed that I must speak ghetto. And to say that Blacks/Browns do not dress for success is rediculous. My husband went for an interview right after graduating from college dressed to kill with an Armani suit and Gucci tie on and when the interviewer came down to meet him, layed one look at him and said "There must be some mistake" that is what we have to deal with. My husband spoke to this man several times and based on the color of his skin for the executive position, the man excused himself from the interview. Did you ever stop to think about who is at the head of all of these music company's that produce this hip hop, white executives. But I digress,

    July 27, 2008 at 4:00 pm |
  42. Swdrasta

    Tamra said,
    "I wish they could understand us, because we’ve spent an eternity trying to understand them and fit in and assimilate into white America just to progress to the heights they have made on the free labor black people gave over 400 years due to slavery. White people got a head start and blacks are still struggling, reason we need reparations."

    Well said.

    To Tamra, RESPECT

    Oneness people

    Swdrasta

    July 27, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  43. Denny

    Prof. Dyson: While I agree that you and Cosby have differing points of view on emphasis, your goal is the same, improving the lives of black men and women in this country. This being said, I would look at the audience you speak to when deciding what to emphasize to accomplish this goal. The goal is to motivate them from where they are. So, if speaking to someone who already highly values personal responsibility (Cosby), I would speak to him of the oposite view (that you personally espouse) to help balance his point of view to what you also see that he does not see as well (social responsibility to those who struggling). However, when speaking to those who do not value personal responsibility, I would not emphasize your own emphasis of social responsibility, because that person will simply get riled up about how unfair it all is and tend to take the focus off what they can do personally. I know this effect occurs because one of my friends who does not have a job (his mom and I float him along when he really needs money ) is sitting around waiting for some politician to come along with a program of some kind. Meanwhile he sits around and plays video games or gets intoxicated. Both his mother and I try to get him motivated to go out and get work, but he has not worked since Hurricane Katrina and recieved quite a few payouts from programs in the aftermath of the storm. He watches and listens to news shows all the time that complain about the injustice of the system ( and I know there is plenty of it and it should be discused with people who are out of balance on the personal responsibility/Cosby side), and is ready to spout off about it all the time, but I feel it chisels away at the sense of initiative when a person who already struggles with self-motivation to hear how the people at the top need to fix it for him. He walks around angry at the system instead of getting out there. He is a good hearted and honest person, and it pains me to see him so influenced into a frenzy about injustice instead of improving his own situation. I have other friends who are personally motivated and successful, but have no concern for others, and these are the people who need to hear what is in your article, but I fear that not very many of those who don't care would be reading your article, they are probably checking the sports scores and stock market tickers. If that is true, then you may be hurting the cause of improving the lives of black men and women by pushing people out of balance in one direction further in that direction. The message needs to be flavored towards the truth of both sides instead of being polarizing and stirring up resentment. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but who is the reading audience for you? Do you know who is reading this?

    July 27, 2008 at 3:48 pm |
  44. Lisa

    it's so strange to me to see all these comments about opportunities waiting for whites to take advantage of without any effort while none await those blacks who do work hard.

    But if one compared the average SATs & GPAs for the white portion of the student body with the black portion of a student body at most universities, there is a HUGE gap. Lesser qualified black students are accepted in the name of 'diversity'.

    Blacks have access to scholarships and tutorial programs at universities that whites and Asians don't.

    No. There are plenty of opportunities for black America but black culture seems to believe that preparing for them is not cool.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:31 pm |
  45. nate

    everytime i read something from a black writer when talking about race, it always has

    "when ______ happens to whites its always better/easier/less punishment, but when it happens to blacks its worse/more difficult/more punishment"

    how about stop focusing on race and how much black people are 'discriminated against' and focus instead on NOT SCREWING UP IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    there is a reason there are more black people in prison per capita than white people. how many drive by shootings have you seen involve a white person? what about gang violence? it may just be coincidental, but many of those things ONLY happen within the black community. perhaps its time to look inward instead of focusing the blame outward.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:30 pm |
  46. Jim

    There are more racist white people now than there ever have been. That is because the black race has more excuses than ever for their lack of advancement. I dont feel guilty as a white man for what has happened to blacks over the years. I havent had it easy just like so many other white folks. There are more whites doing poorly than their are blacks, but you dont hear CNN doing a piece on what its like to be White in America. I wont even consider voting for that Herman Munster Obama just because of this story.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:30 pm |
  47. Alexa D

    I am a black woman (born in the Caribbean), now an American citizen. My parents came to this country legally and worked two to three jobs each, to support us. They wanted more for us than they had and made sure we knew what was expected–education, education, education-first and foremost.

    Instead of defending Rap, Baby Daddies, unwed mothers and so on, how about admitting to the harm it's brought to our communities? Also, black churches –where are you? Instead of spewing hate and looking at the "Man", how about looking at the man in the mirror?
    Let’s keep it “real”. How many years do we continue to wait for the rescue package? The fact is, it’s not coming. As scary as it sounds, each and every one of us MUST do for ourselves. We have to own our situation and work to get out of it. I know, easier said than done, but the first step is to recognize your situation. Then and only then can you take steps to change and eventually improve your life.

    Folks, we have to get back to the basics. Start by having kids in a family structure (mom & dad), promote education and hard work, and foster the desire to give your children all possible opportunities for a successful life.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:19 pm |
  48. Fred

    Mr. Dyson has come along way from his younger days in Detroit. It is safe to assume maybe even a few light skin folks helped him along during his journey yet you wouldn't know that from his teachings.

    I remember seeing Mr. Dyson in a debate with Pat Buchanon on another network and Dyson was basically comparing Michael Vick's actions (killing dogs) to Don Imus' stupid comments. Dyson put those two in the same category.

    I don't listen to Dyson anymore.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:16 pm |
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