Does only one race need 'personal responsibility'?

Karen Grigsby Bates

June 24, 1992|By Karen Grigsby Bates

IF YOU'VE been listening to the babble from the Bush administration, you would think that the notion of personal responsibility is something foreign or new to most of the African-American community. It has become a code phrase for "what's wrong with those people?" and is sprinkled liberally throughout analyses of why the uprising in Los Angeles happened.

Photos and videotape shot during the violence have inspired several commentators to intone that what's needed now in the black community is "a sense of personal responsibility."

What they don't tell you, what you don't see, because daily drudgery doesn't make the front page or the 6 o'clock feed, is that most of the residents in Los Angeles' black and Latino communities did not riot, loot or burn. Not "sexy" in news lingo, but true.

Although you wouldn't know it to look at the mainstream media, the gospel of personal responsibility was preached to many of us very early on. The people who taught us were often not wealthy or powerful. They, too, were disenfranchised by the system. But they never let that be an excuse for less than the best -- behavior, grades, attitude -- from their children. It wasn't always simple or easy. Slavery, for instance, did not usually recognize the validity of black family ties; parents were often sold away from their children, and children were often separated from their siblings.

Even under slavery's yoke, however, slaves often exhibited extraordinary generosity toward one another. Children "orphaned" by slavery's commerce were often taken in and overseen by other plantation residents. Slaves who sought escape were often hidden and passed along by others who could not, or dared not, follow.

More than a century later, the vagaries of a welfare system gone awry have much the same effect: Mothers who want to work to support their children find the task of obtaining inexpensive, safe day care onerous. Fathers are considered burdens, not benefits, and welfare benefits stop if they stay under the same roof with their families.

But the urge to be accountable remains strong for most blacks, including those at or below the poverty level. I watched a woman buy baby clothes recently for her due-any-day-now granddaughter. The girl was maybe 16. "I'm doing this because her mother doesn't have the money," the lady confided to the salesclerk. "This is my first great grand-baby, and we got to start him out right . . . I'm going to keep him so she can finish school." She turned to her granddaughter, "And you are going to finish school, right?"

"Yes ma'm."

In an ideal world, teen-age children do not become parents, but this is the real world and all too many do. The grandmother I saw was doing her part, on a restricted income, to make sure her granddaughter's education would not be neglected because of the unplanned birth of a child. She was taking personal responsibility for her descendants' futures.

The front page of the Los Angeles Times paper contained a story not long ago about a single mother who'd chastised her 6-year-old son for saluting the police with That Finger. The

gesture was atypical, she'd written the editors, but anger in much of black Los Angeles -- over the Rodney King verdict -- is so deep that she knows it was this that prompted her child's mildly obscene digital rebellion.

The story also reported his mother's strict admonition about looting ("Looting is stealing. We don't do it."). As a single mother, she's not Harriet Nelson (news flash: there aren't many Harriet Nelsons left in white communities, either) but by impressing upon him that certain behavior is unacceptable, she is instilling values in her child, values that will stand him in good stead as he makes his way through a society that often will assume he lacks them simply because he is black.

So let me state it again: African-Americans did not discover the concept of personal responsibility yesterday, even though several white social architects have recently bumped into it.

Vice President Dan Quayle, a child of privilege and plenty, cannot begin to understand the stress and anxiety involved in single motherhood that most women, regardless of color, face in America today.

His way has been paid since birth, and he can well afford any child he and his wife may choose to have. So instead of wagging his finger at fictional television heroines, Mr. Quayle would be better off giving that lecture to some of his own: Good, solid family people who seem to have gone a bit astray; folks like Donald Keating, whose greed raped the dreams of millions of elderly investors in collapsed savings and loans; and Michael Milken, whose belief in the flexibility of the rules profited them handsomely while they gutted Wall Street.

So Dan, here's a dollar. I didn't steal it; I got it the way a bunch of black folks get it every day: I earned it. Take it and go buy a clue. I feel personally responsible for putting you more in touch with the real world.

Karen Grigsby Bates wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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