When it comes to race in America, there is a lot of yelling, name calling, and finger pointing, but little in the way of honest dialogue. This is too bad because if there was ever an issue in need of honest dialogue, that issue is race. As a college professor, I witness this need on a daily basis at the retail level in face-to-face interactions with students. My classes are comprised of people of all races, many of whom come from poor and lower-middleclass backgrounds. Most of my students need to get a good education as an essential step toward building a better life. What I see in my classes are plenty of students who work hard and smart toward that end. Unfortunately, I also see students who are just passing through on their way to nowhere. The latter group is composed of students who work neither hard nor smart. In fact they hardly work at all. They appear to believe that an education is something that can be given to them and should be because they are entitled to it. Their attitude can be summarized in these words: “I paid the tuition—give me the degree.” I should add that entitled college students come in all races and both genders and rarely pay their own tuition.
I am privileged to teach students of all races who are serious about education and about bettering their lives, but I am also burdened to teach students of all races who could not care less about learning or self-improvement. Don’t get me wrong, students in the latter group want to enjoy a high quality of life, they just don’t want to have to work for it. Of those who fit into this category, I am especially concerned about the black students I encounter because a higher percentage of them come from impoverished backgrounds. The black students who concern me most are those who because of the victimhood mentality that has been pushed on them since first grade in America’s public schools have developed a negative attitude toward education specifically and life in general. For example, I am encountering an increasing number of black students who view learning to speak proper English as “talking white”; something they disdain and even mock in other black students. As a college professor I can attest to the fact that speaking proper English hardly qualifies as “talking white,” since few of my white students speak proper English.
College professors are in the business of human development and improvement. Consequently, on one hand if students want to learn and improve themselves we can help them, but on the other hand, it takes two to tango. Professors can help students grow, develop, and improve, but only if students are willing to do their part. Doing their part means taking education seriously, attending classes regularly, paying attention, doing a good job on assignments, and studying hard for tests. It does not mean refusing to learn proper English because it might be considered “talking white” by some of your peers. Nor does it mean sitting back and expecting to be given what can only be earned.
This concept of using education to better one’s lot in life has deep meaning for me. I spent my youth in poverty. Consequently, I know what it takes to start on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder and work your way up. Succeeding in America is not rocket science. The formula is simple: assume personal responsibility for your life, work hard, work smart, take education seriously, and make no excuses. I call this approach the personal-initiative formula for success. A sad fact is that too many of my black students who are public school graduates have for 12 years been given a different formula; a formula based on an attitude of entitlement and victimhood. Young black students are fed the victimhood formula from first grade on by liberal educators, politicians, and black leaders with an agenda that has nothing to do with helping black Americans pull themselves up out of poverty. It is no exaggeration to say that liberals and race hustlers who push the victimhood formula are guilty of the shabbiest kind of pandering to the worst instincts of young black students.
What is exasperating about the victimhood formula is that it has been tried for more than 50 years and clearly does not work—a fact that would be obvious to any objective observer. Consider, for example, the government’s misnamed war on poverty. This so-called war has been going on for more than 50 years now. During the past five decades more than a trillion dollars have been spent on a long list of government programs that were supposed to eradicate poverty. But the hard fact is that there have been no substantial improvements because of these expenditures. The percentage of poor people in America is roughly the same as it was before the government first declared its war on poverty in the 1960s. In the case of black Americans, things have actually gotten worse. In too many cases the lives of black Americans are now characterized by fatherless families, drugs, crime, gang activity, low academic achievement, high dropout rates, functional illiteracy, and trans-generational dependence on government handouts. This being the case, isn’t it time we tried another approach?
Clearly we need to have an honest dialogue about poverty and race in America, but having such a dialogue is not just difficult, it is nearly impossible. Why? Two reasons: First, there are too many people with vested interests in perpetuating the victimhood formula. This group is composed of race hustlers such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson whose very relevance and financial security are based on maintaining a permanent underclass of black Americans who can be made to seethe with anger over what they perceive as discrimination by the white majority. The Al Sharptons of the world need black Americans to view themselves as victims. If they don’t, Reverend Sharpton and his ilk quickly become irrelevant. Added to this group are liberal politicians who view government-dependent minorities as a gold mine of reliable Democratic voters. Further, there are the sappy liberals who try to assuage their misplaced white guilt by continuing to support failed government programs long after it has become obvious that government “solutions” don’t solve poverty and race related problems—they perpetuate them.
The second reason an honest dialogue on poverty and race is not possible is that to challenge the victimhood formula is to set oneself up for some pretty rough treatment by its advocates. Those who promulgate the victimhood formula are so fearful of an honest dialogue about it that they will do anything and say anything—facts and ethics be damned—to prevent one from occurring. One of their favorite tactics has long been to label those who advocate for more personal initiative and less government dependence in the black community as “racists” if they are white or “sell-outs” if they are black. Distinguished journalist, Jason Riley, who happens to be black, wrote about this phenomenon in the January 2015 issue of Imprimis: “Another big part of the problem is a reluctance to speak honestly about these cultural shortcomings (high dropout rates, low academic achievement, functional illiteracy, etc. in the black community). Many whites fear being called racists. And many black leaders have a vested interest in blaming black problems on white racism, so that is the narrative they push regardless of the reality. Racism has become an all-purpose explanation for bad black outcomes, be they social or economic. If you disagree and are white you’re a bigot. If you disagree and are black, you’re a sellout.”
An outside observer might wonder how in the face of all the evidence, those who push the victimhood formula get away with it. To understand, one must go back to the 1960s. It was during this turbulent decade that liberals began to gain the upper hand in terms of controlling the socio-cultural narrative in America. As the anti-establishment radicals of the 60s worked their way into our nation’s institutions—particularly higher education and the media—they were able to take control of the socio-cultural narrative. Prior to the 1960s, colleges, universities, newspapers, and the electronic media leaned toward either the middle or right for the most part. But after the 60s these institutions took a hard turn to the left.
Liberals then used their cultural hegemony to create, nurture, promulgate, and perpetuate a narrative of black Americans as victims and white Americans as latter-day Simon Legrees. Because liberals gained control of the public schools as well as institutions of higher education, they were able to brainwash young people into believing the propaganda they read in newspapers and heard on the nightly news. Over time, the lie of the victimhood formula took hold and became gospel in America. Never mind that the facts clearly show that government poverty programs do much to raise hope in the black community but little to raise the standard of living. Sad to say but poor people—no matter their race—who accept the victimhood mentality as gospel, will remain stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.