Paul Ryan Debate Needs Context, Not Self-Help Bromides
Peniel E. Joseph is Professor of History at Tufts University and the author of the award-winning Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama as well as editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era and Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level.
Paul Ryan’s criticism of “inner city” youths trapped in a cycle of poverty that renders them permanently unemployable sparked a wave of critical response that was all the more noteworthy because of the kind of nuanced and insightful analysis that contradicts claims that journalism is on its last legs. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out that Ryan’s thinly veiled criticism of the black community’s moral fiber mirrored, albeit for different reasons, President Barack Obama’s at-times self-serving criticism of black family values—or at least of their perceived demise in certain quarters.
Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, our national conversation about racial justice has become impoverished enough that the nation’s first black president—and, at times, first lady—feel a responsibility to remind graduating black college students, who seemingly exemplify personal responsibility and discipline, that they must work hard and not expect a free lunch.
Martin Luther King Jr. crafted the language for a third major strain of race talk in America. King imagined a world wherein black people could be treated as three-dimensional human beings. His compassionate rhetoric acknowledged both ancient racial hierarchies and contemporary structural impediments. Instead of building monuments to personal responsibility, King proposed an ethic of collective sacrifice in service of ideas—bringing about peace, ending poverty, eradicating all forms of oppression—that far exceeded the imagination of any one individual person or even nation.
But the black-pathology hustle ignores these alternative explanations and realities in favor of a narrative so powerfully comforting that it continues to mesmerize well-intended liberals and progressives, including President Obama.
We should all be wise enough to follow King’s example. For his focus, contrary to popular belief, was not on political triumphs but on the enduring struggle to reimagine American society beyond its roots in racial terror and economic subjugation. King’s dreams of a “beloved community” were embedded in a pragmatic understanding that institutions in American society and, indeed, around the world would have to be remade. This revolutionary vision rested on an appreciation that black folks’ culture, far from being some kind of racial Achilles’ heel, served as a ballast that helped African Americans survive the still-unfolding drama from slavery to freedom.
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