"Obama is correct that there is a long history of black leaders addressing ‘personal responsibility.’ But as a diagnosis, the tradition is erroneous.
When W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1897, claimed that the ‘first and greatest’ step toward addressing ‘the Negro Problem,’ lay in correcting the ‘immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves’ he was wrong. No amount of morality could have prevented the overthrow of Wilmington by white supremacists—the only coup in American history—a year later. When Booker T. Washington urged blacks to use ‘every iota of influence that we possess’ to ‘get rid of the criminal and loafing element of our people,’ he was wrong. When Marcus Garvey claimed that ‘the greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself,’ he was dead wrong. When Malcolm X claimed that ‘the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,’ and asserted that black people ‘will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community,’ he was wrong. He knew the game was rigged. He did not know how much.
An appeal to authority—even the authority of our dead—doesn’t make Barack Obama any more right. On the contrary, it shows how wrong he is. I can’t think of a single credible historian of our 500-year tenure here who has concluded that our problem was a lack of ‘personal responsibility.’ The analysis is as old as it is flawed, and that is because it isn’t analysis at all but something altogether different. No black people boo when the president talks about personal responsibility. On the contrary, it’s often the highlight of his speeches on race. If you’ve ever lived in a black community, you might understand why. I can assemble all kinds of stats, graphs, and histories to explain black America’s ills to you. But none of that can salve the wound of leaving for work at 7 a.m., seeing young men on the stoop blowing trees, and coming home and seeing the same niggers—because this is what we say to ourselves—sitting in the same place. It is frustrating to feel yourself at war with these white folks—because that too is what we say—and see people standing on your corner who you believe to have given up the fight.
‘I am not raising ‘nothing n*gg*rs,’ my mother used to tell me. ‘I am not raising n*gg*rs to stand on the corner.’ My mother did not know her father. In my life, I’ve loved four women. One of them did not know her father and two, very often, wished they didn’t. It’s not very hard to look at that, and seethe. It’s not very hard to look at that and see a surrender, while you are out here at war, and seethe. It’s not hard to look around at your community and feel that you are afflicted by quitters, that your family—in particular—is afflicted by a weakness. And so great is this weakness that the experience of black fatherlessness can connect Barack Obama in Hawaii to young black boys on the South Side, and that fact—whatever the charts, graphs, and histories may show—is bracing. When Barack Obama steps into a room and attacks people for presumably using poverty or bigotry as an excuse to not parent, he is channeling a feeling deep in the heart of all black people, a frustration, a rage at ourselves for letting this happen, for allowing our community to descend into the basement of America, and dwell there seemingly forever.
My mother’s admonishings had their place. God forbid I ever embarrass her. God forbid I be like my grandfather, like the fathers of my friends and girlfriends and wife. God forbid I ever stand in front of these white folks and embarrass my ancestors, my people, my dead. And God forbid I ever confuse that creed, which I took from my mother, which I pass on to my son, with a wise and intelligent analysis of my community. My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.
In his book The Condemnation of Blackness, the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that a few years after Du Bois made his proclamations he was shocked to find himself cited by unreformed white supremacists. And this is not even the past. New York’s civil-rights leadership and the racists of our time are united in their belief in the myth of a Knockout Game, which is to say they are united in a belief in our oldest and most fallacious narratives, which have not died.
Catharsis is not policy. Catharsis is not leadership. And shame is not wisdom. And applause can never make a man right. And there are many kinds of personal responsibility. The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy. It is so very hard to say this, to urge people on in a long war. We keep asking the same question, but the answer has not changed.
And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of ‘twice as good’ in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.”
Sadly, on this Ta-Nehesi Coates is as dogmatic and unreasonable as a radical mullah or some doctrinaire cardinal or rabbi. So why argue? He seems to want to keep some tie to the ferment of 1960s Black Arts Movement ethos. You know the kind: any type of anti social and trifling behavior is a means of resistance, liberation, counter culture. Rather than what it is: crime, knucklehedry, skank or self destruction, ghetto fabulousness.
I strongly agree with him on many , many things. This ain’t one. But every public intellectual—be they an academic or essayist or journalist, poet, scientist or pundit—has one vice or nettlesome flaw. This his is. Mine is coconut cake.