I was chatting with my blogmate blackink last night while he watched the Obama speech to the NAACP. “I can already see the headline,” he said. “Obama to blacks: ‘No excuses.'”
I don’t even know what to say anymore. I haven’t heard Obama’s speech. But I’ve seen this play out so many times, that I’m fairly sure what happened. Obama probably said a lot of things, and in the midst of it spent a few minutes on “putting down the Playstation and turning off the Ipod.”And then he probably said something about not accepting any excuses from our kids. And thus we have a reductive headline.
Like I said earlier this week–so much of this isn’t about Obama himself, but a deep-seated desire to get out from under history. Expiation on the cheap. White guilt isn’t anyone’s friend. Least of all black people’s.
As has been said countless times, none of Obama’s “personal responsibility” speeches toward black people are the novel, daring phenomenon that the mainstream press seems to think they are. It’s pretty routine church/Thanksgiving dinner/barbershop talk.
What’s frustrating is the common formulation that discussing inequality or disadvantages constitutes an “excuse,” like there’s a sea of black folks whining that the dog ate their homework. For the past 40+ years, black folks have been trying to throw off the yoke of three centuries of being denied the most basic personal agency — the freedom of movement or the freedom to choose education or the freedom even to stay with their families. The deep animus and passive contempt that fueled and informed those doctrines didn’t just evaporate into the ether with the progressive legislation of the 60’s and 70’s. Acknowledging the serious ramifications of those things — disproportionate rates of poverty, imprisonment, inferior schooling, etc — isn’t just “blaming whitey.”
An ex-girlfriend of mine had two parents who both taught in Detroit public high schools. I was talking to her mother once about Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, which she said was depressingly familiar. She was a vice principal at a troubled school, and said that she had large swaths of kids who came in every day because it was the only place they knew they’d have heat in the winter. My ex-girlfriend’s father said that he had students who busted their asses, begged for extra credit, never missed a day, and graduated at the top of their classes. They were honors students and the focus of their teachers’ attention, affirmation and meager resources. Those kids’ parents were active and involved. They held up their ends of the bargain. But then they got to college, and were confronted with how profoundly inadequate their educations had been, and realized that they couldn’t read at a high school level, let alone write a passable college paper.
David Simon has a great passage in The Corner about how the bootstraps narrative lulls people into the belief that if they had grown up poor in a shooting gallery in B-more with drug paraphernalia littered around them, that somehow they would be different. They’d tune out the fact that they were racked by hunger or that they didn’t have consistent electricity or that their parents were on drugs or that they had no real support and would just go upstairs, shut their doors and do their homework.
It’s an attractive, affirming fantasy. But it’s still a fantasy.