The last gasps of black victimology?

August 10, 2008|By Lawrence E. Harrison

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass - There is a moment in the first movement of Beethoven's great Third Symphony, the Eroica, when a French horn enters on a jarring off-key note. The public gasped when it premiered, but that "wrong horn entry" turned the page from the Classical music era to the Romantic era.

The public heard another wrong horn entry last month when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's crude complaint about Sen. Barack Obama "talking down to black people" was caught by a live microphone. The dissonance represented not the innovative tones of the vanguard but the bitter notes of a depleted and increasingly irrelevant old guard.

Mr. Jackson's vulgarity has been widely characterized as symbolic of a generational conflict among African-Americans. It's that, but also a lot more. It may well mark the end of the dominant, decades-old theme of "victimology" in African-American discourse that has been Mr. Jackson's - and several other leaders' - stock in trade.

Victimology, in the view of black writer John McWhorter, is the theory that (1) African-Americans are continuing victims of racism and discrimination, and (2) their progress consequently depends chiefly on acts of repentant benevolence by whites - in the extreme case, reparations for slavery.

Mr. Jackson is the best-known victimologist but far from the only one. They all must experience acute ambivalence as they view Senator Obama: on the one hand, satisfaction and pride that an African-American may well be elected president this November; on the other, what his success tells us about racism - the root of their victimhood - in the United States.

What that success says is that while they may have had a just cause a few decades ago, today they are dead wrong. Not only dead wrong but also perpetuating a myth that nurtures "dependency thinking" on the part of many African-Americans: "We can't make it on our own because the system is stacked against us."

As someone who has been involved in Latin American development issues for almost half a century, dependency thinking strikes a resonant - and highly negative - note for me. During the 1970s and 1980s, "dependency theory" was the dominant explanation in Latin American and U.S. universities for Latin America's economic, political and social backwardness. Dependency theory argued that the world economic system, dominated by the United States, enriched the affluent countries at the expense of the poor countries.

Lucian Pye, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described dependency theory as "demeaning and despairing" because it implied impotence on the part of the dependent. The only way out for the "exploited" was through acts of benevolence by the "exploiters" - the equivalent of reparations in the African-American context.

Thankfully, another current of thought has emerged among African-Americans that is wholly consistent with the Obama candidacy and all that it implies about the decline of race as a stigmatizing factor in America today. Bill Cosby has become the symbol of this movement, which emphasizes self-help as the principal engine of progress for African-Americans.

Those who are sympathetic to the victim view of African-Americans should read Out of America, a stunning book by journalist Keith Richburg. After seeing firsthand the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Africans, he expressed gratitude that his ancestors had come to the United States, even as slaves.

Affirmative action has become a highly significant symbol of the divide on race. For those who see African-Americans chiefly as victims, affirmative action is an indispensable policy of expiation for the sins of slavery, segregation and all the other forms of racism and discrimination.

But an emerging national consensus that Mr. Obama embraces calls for affirmative action, particularly with respect to education, to be shifted from race to class. That means that all young people, no matter of what race or ethnicity, who come from circumstances of deprivation but show promise, should receive special treatment by college admission officials.

This is a highly favorable development, one that is consistent with our national goals of a colorblind society and upward mobility for all.

In his book Two Wands, One Nation, former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm poses a novel way to think about race and progress: "Let me offer you, metaphorically, two magic wands that have sweeping powers to change society. With one wand you could wipe out all racism and discrimination from the hearts and minds of white America. The other wand you could wave across the ghettos and barrios of America and infuse the inhabitants with Japanese or Jewish values, respect for learning and ambition." Which wand would you wave?

Mr. Jackson would almost surely wave the first; Mr. Obama, like Mr. Lamm, the second. That's the measure of the drastic change on race that is taking place in American society, so powerfully symbolized by Mr. Obama's candidacy.

Lawrence E. Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., where he also teaches. His latest book is "The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself." This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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