Debates Within Black Community Going Public

AP, Feb. 18, 2007

[AP] Editor’s Note: This story contains language some may find objectionable.

Late last year, essayist John Ridley wrote an article for Esquire magazine, using an in-your-face style to rip the black underclass. He went on to describe famous blacks who’ve excelled in recent years—Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell—and argued that the whole group benefited from their work. It’s up to us, he wrote, to emulate their success.

The reader outcry was loud and long.

It quickly became clear that irate readers weren’t much concerned with Ridley’s argument. They were derailed by the fact that a black person had blasted other blacks. In a national magazine. With a mostly white audience. Using the n-word.

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For generations, African-Americans have bickered over what’s wrong with black America. But mostly they’ve done it in places other ethnic groups weren’t listening: around dining room tables; within lecture halls at black universities; from black church pulpits and in the black press.

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Ridley wrote that blacks need to “send niggers on their way” and stop being victims.

Shattering solidarity

Such voices, while a minority among African-Americans, are increasingly vocal and pointed. They are shattering the unwritten rules of black solidarity: Let’s all work together. And if we can’t, let’s at least keep our fights within the family.

“Black conservatives have had to go to the mainstream and make their arguments there because there is no place in the black community for those arguments to be made—not the black church or anywhere,” said Shelby Steele, an award-winning author and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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Up by one’s own bootstraps

But a common theme is individualism. Each African-American must take responsibility for the future, they say, and stop focusing on racial bias as a barrier. Instead, work harder in school, build businesses and accumulate wealth, power or both.

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It’s a sentiment others agree with, such as those involved in the push within the African-American community for marriage. Organizers of the fourth annual Black Marriage Day—set for March 25—lament that nearly seven in 10 black children are born to unmarried parents. Most single parents have less time and money than married ones, they say, and children can suffer.

That third-rail word

Ridley’s Esquire piece, titled “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” started with: “Let me tell you something about niggers, the oppressed minority within our minority. Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can’t catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing it for themselves.”

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Betrayal or frankness?

Ebony would not have considered the Ridley piece, he said. “The frame would have been different before we even assigned the piece,” he said.

Ridley and others have a right to freely express their views, Walters said, because the civil rights “struggle has not been to build a wall around the black community. It was to liberate people.

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Journalist Juan Williams said he, like Ridley, is often accused of betraying black America because he publicly criticizes other blacks.

“There’s always a concerted effort to undermine anyone who wants to say something different than the orthodox methods of the civil rights movement,” said Williams, a regular commentator for National Public Radio and Fox News. “It’s like hitting a nerve. You didn’t just step on somebody’s toe, you stepped on the nerve center.”

For Cosby, no laughing matter

Long a proponent of education and self-reliance, Bill Cosby provoked similar reactions when he gave black America a tongue-lashing during a May 2004, speech in Washington. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the key anti-segregation ruling from the Supreme Court.

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“There’s always been a norm in the black community that self-criticisms are conducted within the black community,” said Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

“Malcolm X said you don’t wash your dirty laundry in public. A group that feels it’s under attack and oppressed wants to present a united front.”

That norm long united a politically diverse community.

Old attitude gaining ground

Around the turn of the 20th century, urban black Americans often criticized other, typically poor blacks who were moving en masse from the rural South into big, northern cities, said Mary Pattillo, a political scientist at Northwestern University.

In a sort of noblesse oblige, the National Urban League even published gentle advice to the newcomers on how to fit in—for instance, don’t spit in the streets.

“Of course, this was not published in Esquire,” she said. “It was in our black newspapers and Ebony and all that.”

Today, that’s changing, Pattillo said. “We are now having our internal discussion publicly.”

Why now?

For starters, many who bemoan the changes say it’s because Cosby, Ridley and others are repeating the views of conservative whites, which helps promote them to a wider audience.

Countering tradition

Many whites celebrate the critics because they blame black failings, not white racism, for blacks’ problems, said Melissa Harris Lacewell, a Princeton University professor of political science.

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There’s also a generational factor. Most political analysts agree that younger black people, especially those in the middle class, are more politically conservative than their counterparts in earlier generations. Maybe they take the gains for granted because they’re too young to have witnessed the gruesome realities of the pre-civil rights era.

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The emphasis on individual success, especially becoming wealthy, also could be part of a wider trend: Recent studies have shown that younger Americans of all racial backgrounds as a group are more interested in being well off than they were even a couple of decades ago.

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“When many of us were in our 20s and 30s, we were still deferring to the grandeur and accomplishments of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ‘60s,” said Williams, whose book was inspired partly by Cosby’s speeches. “Now they’re finding their own voice. There’s a new energy in search of ideas and a willingness to discuss them openly that was previously unseen in black America.”

He added: “I don’t think this conversation would have taken root the way it has two or five years ago.

“Now, people are ready.”

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