Black youths must learn how to respond to racism RTC

January 04, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Do black leaders talk too much about racism and discrimination and not enough about personal responsibility? Are black kids being trained to think of themselves as professional victims?

The majority culture certainly has felt this to be true. Even during the years of slavery and segregation, many whites held that blacks had only themselves to blame for their condition.

Now, a consensus also seems to be emerging within the black community itself that blacks are their own worst enemies.

"We are teaching black kids that they are victims -- the only victims -- and that everything that goes wrong in life is part of some racist conspiracy," says Ken Hamblin, a conservative radio talk show host and newspaper columnist in Denver.

"We have been using the white race in general and the white man in particular as a scapegoat," writes sociologist Jerry Smith in his book, "It's Time to Stop Blaming the White Man."

"Our children are murdering each other like it's a fad and we are blaming the white man," Smith says.

Increasingly, civil rights leaders themselves have begun to agree. Jesse Jackson, in a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, said blacks must undergo a "social values revolution" to combat problems such as black-on-black crime, teen pregnancy, and poor performance in school. And in November, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, told a black congregation that, "we've got to stop turning to folks outside of our community for solutions to our problems. Before you ask for something, use what's in your own hands -- if we want the killings to stop, a federal grant is not going to stop it."

I find myself torn on this question. On the one hand, we seem to be ignoring a truth I believe to be self-evident: That while the overwhelming majority of black Americans acknowledge racism as a social reality they nevertheless strive to achieve, regardless of the odds. Based on my experience, achievement and personal responsibility remain very strong values in the black community.

On the other hand, there is a growing black underclass that seems more angry and more despairing than ever before. And this underclass believes that it cannot prevail against white oppression.

It is an old dilemma for black Americans: How to juggle the reality of racism against the need to be responsible for one's own destiny.

"The problem is not victimization -- racism is a fact of life -- the problem is what are we going to do about it," says Spencer H. Holland, director of the Center for Educating African American Males at Morgan State University. I had gone to Dr. Holland because he has successfully motivated young black males in Baltimore and several other cities through the Project 2000 program, which uses successful black men to serve as personal mentors to inner city youth.

"We have done something to some of our children that was awful," continues Dr. Holland. "We stopped telling our kids how to deal with being black in America; how to deal with the hurt and the anger and the fear that comes with being black and being a male in a hostile society."

He stops and looks at me challengingly. "You were told how to do this. I was taught this. And even now, the young men growing up in homes where the father is present are being told this. The problem is, a great many of our young men do not have a strong male present and they are not being told."

Dr. Holland is right. I was taught that racism meant I would have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as whites and get half the rewards in return. The adults in my community -- my parents, neighbors and teachers -- were bitter about the limitations imposed by racism and discrimination. But at the same time, those adults left no doubt in my mind that I was capable of fighting back; that I had the ability to beat the white man at his own game.

Says Dr. Holland: "We have to say to our young men, 'Yeah, you're angry. Yeah, you're hurt. But you fight back with an education. You fight back by being smarter than they are.' "

Is that a racist creed? Is that teaching victimization? No. It is a back-to-basics response against racism.

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