“For the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
—W. E. B. Dubois
What if Tookie Williams were white? How would his story have been different? How would that have changed the media frenzy surrounding his death? Most of us know the basic outlines of Williams’s story. He was the founding member of the Crips, one of the nation’s bloodiest gangs, a convicted murderer who laughed as his victims died; a man who—while in prison—renounced gang life, wrote several compelling books, and never admitted, apologized, or asked for forgiveness for the murders he committed. Williams was recently put to death, but his petition for clemency became a cause célebre. Activists, rappers, and movie stars all came out to petition and to protest in his support. Would they have come out if he had been white?
I suspect not. Many activists and celebrities invested great energy to save the life of a man who was unapologetic to the last, and whose destructive legacy of gang life has served to tear apart countless communities and destroy many promising lives. There are thousands of hard-working, honest black men, women, and children living in poverty today, trying to build a life for themselves, who still have to deal with the destructive legacy of gang life. Yet their lives, and their struggles, attract such little sustained attention from the millionaire celebrities and high-profile activists who claim to care about the black community. Their struggles rarely make the papers, yet Tookie Williams was held up by many as a role model.
If Tookie Williams were white—if a white man had been convicted of murder, laughed at his victims as they died, started a violent gang that terrorized communities, and wrote books renouncing his lifestyle, yet never asked for forgiveness for his crimes—would such a white man be held up as a role model for youths?
If Tookie Williams were white, he would not have been seen as a celebrity but as a murderer. What does the media furor around his story tell us about how little valued are the lives of his victims? Jesse Jackson and others were there to protest a governor who did his duty in executing the death penalty, yet they protest too little the songs and videos that glorify the very lifestyle of violence and thuggery that lead to so many black-on-black deaths. This can tell us only one thing: that Dubois was right, that the problem of race was and still is a major problem in our society, and we can see now that one of its most deadly effects has led to a confused generation of young black entertainers and activists who, beneath it all, hold themselves to a lower standard.
As Dubois observed, the color-line was indeed the major problem throughout the 20th century and persists in hampering America’s progress in the 21st. The immoral acts of a young nation gave birth to this color-line, and now only the moral acts of a mature nation can tear it down. So how do we as a nation address this complex problem from a moral standpoint?
The constitution provides us with proof that the Founding Fathers were men of great insight and forethought. However, they didn’t possess the moral strength to abolish the unconscionable institution of slavery and truly create a nation in which all were equal in the eyes of God. It was this misguided and corrupt decision that caused deep division within this country and ensured that race would play a significant role in shaping its destiny. While there’s evidence that they may have realized how morally wrong and potentially destructive the institution was, the Founding Fathers believed that abolishing slavery would have torn the country apart. As is often the case, the morally right thing to do was the most difficult thing to do, and was subsequently avoided.
As we move ahead in the 21st century, 140 years after Emancipation, the state of black America is miserable on many fronts. The poverty rate among American blacks is 24.7 percent, whereas the rate for Asians is 9.85, Hispanics 21.9, and non-Hispanic whites 8.2 percent. Black households had the lowest median income ($30,134) in 2004 among race groups; Asians had the highest at $57,518, non-Hispanic whites $48,977, and Hispanics $34,241. Of all Americans, 5.7 percent are without health insurance; however, the rate for blacks is 19.7 percent. On average, the per capita income of whites is 69 percent higher than that of blacks. For whites, 18 percent of families with children are headed by women, while for blacks the figure is 44 percent. One-third of America’s poor are children. Worse, the Children’s Defense Fund found that nearly 1 million black children live not in poverty, but in extreme poverty. Among blacks, two out of every three births are out of wedlock.
According to the 2000 Census, American blacks make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population. However, they have accounted for 368,169 (40 percent) of the 929,985 estimated AIDS cases diagnosed since the epidemic began. In 2003 the rate of AIDS diagnoses for American blacks was almost ten times the rate for whites and almost three times the rate for Hispanics. The rate for black American women was 25 times that of white women, and the rate for black American men was eight times the rate for white men.
I could go on and on with these heartbreaking numbers. Sadly, blacks are above the American average in almost every negative category, ensuring a life of low self-esteem, strife, and agony.
Why is the situation for blacks so desperate? I am convinced more than ever that the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism continues to impact the quality of life for black Americans in this country. Have I turned away from my beliefs in personal responsibility? No. I still believe that the fate of every man rests on his own shoulders. However, we must not underestimate the lasting effects of racism. Since the first slave was brought to this country more than 400 years ago, blacks and whites have faced very different circumstances. Blacks were cut off from all ties to their culture and native language. Reading, writing, or gaining any type of education was punishable by death.
Slavery has ended, but many blacks believe—whether it is real or imagined—that they’re still denied basic rights such as education and the right to vote. Uneducated parents continue to raise uneducated children. With the barriers of segregation broken down and the victories of the civil-rights movement, some blacks were able to move out of this vicious cycle. Yet many—especially in the South—will tell you that racism continues to be an obstacle to those who wish to move ahead.
Many American blacks are still caught in a cycle that began more than 400 years ago. Uneducated, they’re unable to find work adequate to support a family and are subsequently unable to send their children to better schools; the child receives the same sub-par education the parent did, and the cycle of poverty continues. Whites, on the other hand, were able to receive education, find quality work, build wealth, assume positions of power, and most importantly, pass to their children the vision that the opportunities of America are truly available to them.
Were faced today with another moral dilemma. Do we continue to support social programs that provide handouts to blacks, thus hindering their growth? Or do we push for reforms that will ensure that blacks are able to stand on their own and compete at the same level as other Americans? How we address this dilemma will have a tremendous impact on whether America will endure as a great nation for centuries to come. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, the destiny of America is inextricably linked to the destiny of American blacks. Moreover, it’s in the interest of all Americans to ensure that every resident of this country, as the old proverb states, has the ability to fish for himself.
Everyone agrees that minorities have been victimized and that America has fallen short of the promise of 40 acres and a mule. The question is whether embracing victim status really helps us achieve equality. How do we move beyond the initial steps of civil-rights legislation? Many of our civil-rights leaders have created the myth of retribution—the idea that seeking payback will somehow create equality. They stay in business by fomenting anger and embracing a defeatist, us-against-them attitude. But this approach is dangerous because it encourages society to regard all members of a fixed group as permanent victims.
Contrary to what proponents of affirmative action and reparations tell us, not all American blacks are victims. In fact, many have personal stories that bear witness to the promise of faith and determination embodied in the civil-rights slogan, “We Shall Overcome.” Unfortunately, rather than appreciating and building upon the hard-fought victories achieved by the original movement, today’s civil-rights leaders have adapted a new mantra: “The difficulties that blacks suffer are the direct result of crimes that occurred centuries ago.” In other words, no matter how much they have overcome, minorities in this country will always be victims. This kind of thinking has become the centerpiece of the modern civil-rights movement, in which affirmative action and reparations have become the chief instruments of control employed by the NAACP and other leaders who have a limited view of what American blacks are truly capable of achieving.
The majority of people who benefit from affirmative action already have the resources to get into a good college. Meanwhile, poor minorities who actually need the help often fail to benefit. Many impoverished people lose hope at a very young age. In poor, urban schools across the country, minority students fail to learn basic skills in the early grades. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth graders were unable to demonstrate a “basic” proficiency in reading. If the students reach high school unable to read and understand the material, they see little reason to stick around. Not surprisingly, nearly twice as many American blacks drop out of high school as white students. If anything, affirmative action should be targeting socioeconomically disadvantaged students before they reach the graduate level.
Programs should be implemented to prevent children from growing up to believe that they have no chance at achieving the American dream. When these kids reach high school, it’s too late for them to take advantage of affirmative action, because many of them have already given up. Consequently, the people using affirmative action to gain admittance to colleges end up being the suburban bourgeois who don’t actually need it. For them, affirmative action has become an entitlement. They come to believe that they are owed affirmative action, not because of their socioeconomic situation, but by virtue of their skin color.
Affirmative action was never meant to persuade perfectly competent, intelligent, and fairly well-to-do blacks to believe that they are victims. It was not about cultivating a sense of entitlement among middle-class blacks, or conditioning our children from a young age to believe that they are, by virtue of their race, owed a handout. Yet that’s precisely what affirmative action has done. Rather than focusing on the college admissions process or professional contracting, programs should be implemented to ensure that the elementary education system opens doors to achievement. Pushing a few well-to-do black kids through the college doors because of the color of their skin does little to redress the real problem of racial hierarchies in the country.
I recall witnessing an experiment in which an insect was placed under a glass cup. For hours the insect fought to free himself but was, of course, unsuccessful. After a while, he gave up hope. His spirit had become so broken that even after the cup was removed he didn’t perceive it and remained motionless.
The hopeless insect that believes he’s trapped is analogous to the attitude of many blacks in America. For centuries, American blacks were trapped under the glass of oppression and tyranny. However, the glass has been lifted, and yet many remain disillusioned, believing that we have no control over our own destiny. Consequently they remain motionless, waiting and hoping for something or someone to push them along. Opportunities for upward mobility in American society are ubiquitous, but because they believe they cannot achieve, they’ll never take advantage of the incredible opportunities available to them in this country.
Leadership for the black community must change. We must fight injustice where it exists, certainly. But the greater challenge is to call attention to the immense opportunities available to American blacks, and then help them seize those opportunities.
We have a rare moment in our history to make right the future direction of this nation for all our citizens. It takes courage, strength, and character to do what is morally right. But how to proceed? Many are convinced that the fight must come from three sources: the government, citizens who are financially secure, and the impoverished themselves.
The government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from both external and internal threats—such as poverty. While it’s true that for the past 40 years the government has provided programs to help the poor, I don’t believe that they’ve done much that actually improves their situation. Programs like welfare don’t instill a real sense of ownership in individuals. They provide reward without work. I am a firm believer that you can never really appreciate money you didn’t earn. The government must find a way to provide funds that will uplift and not just aid.
Second, government programs must be complemented by the help of those who are financially secure. Our help doesn’t have to come by writing a check, but by providing guidance and education to those who need it most. For example, for the past ten years or so I have been mentoring young men and women to help them achieve home ownership and financial independence. You would be surprised at how many young people have no idea what a credit score is, or even how to open a checking account. Information that most of us consider common sense isn’t so common in some parts of this country. It doesn’t always require money to help people change the direction of their lives. Your time is often the greatest gift you can give. Coach a baseball team, help a youngster learn to read, or just provide a shoulder for someone to lean on. You will be surprised by the lives you’re able to change.
Finally, the most important step made in eradicating poverty must come from the poor themselves. Only God knows why some have been oppressed and given tremendous obstacles to overcome in their lives. Yet I do know that we all have the power to defeat whatever hardships we face. I spoke at length in my first book, Beyond Blame (Free Press, 1995), about Malcolm X and his message. There are many tenets of Islam that I respect, and I truly admire the manner in which Malcolm X turned his life around. Instead of making excuses, he decided to change his life; in doing so, he went from being a petty thief to one of the most powerful leaders in the country. Government programs or help from individual Americans will not achieve anything if those whom they seek to empower make no effort to pick themselves up.
American blacks have endured unspeakable hardship and pain in this country. For hundreds of years other men profited from their exploitation. We cannot turn back time to right the wrongs of our past, but we can ensure that the descendants of those who were so brutally victimized by slavery are equipped to compete on the world’s stage. Handouts will not suffice, for true empowerment can only come when men believe in themselves, feel good at the end of the day about their own achievements, and believe that every opportunity in America is truly their opportunity.