The High Cost of Racial Hype

Thomas Sowell, Townhall, September 17, 2008

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All this came back to me recently when I saw a font-page story about middle-class blacks worrying about their racial identity. There, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, was a picture of a black teenager whose mother was fixing his bow tie as he was getting dressed in a tuxedo, in preparation for a cotillion.

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Apparently there are middle-class blacks who spend a lot of time and energy worrying about losing their roots and losing touch with their black brothers back in the ’hood.

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In a world where an absolute majority of black children are born and raised in fatherless homes, where most black kids never finish high school and where the murder rate among blacks is several times the national average, surely there must be more urgent priorities than preserving a lifestyle and an identity.

During decades of researching racial and ethnic groups in countries around the world—with special attention to those who began in poverty and then rose to prosperity—I have yet to find one so preoccupied with tribalistic identity as to want to maintain solidarity with all members of their group, regardless of what they do or how they do it.

Any group that rises has to have norms, and that means repudiating those who violate those norms, if you are serious. Blind tribalism means letting the lowest common denominator determine the norms and the fate of the whole group.

There was a time when most blacks, like most of the Irish or the Jews, understood this common sense. But that was before the romanticizing of identity took over, beginning in the 1960s.

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The Urban League and other black uplift groups made similar efforts to prepare their fellow blacks to rise in American society. In fact, those efforts began to pay off in dramatic reductions in poverty among blacks, even before the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

The unanswered question is why an approach with a proven track record, not only in American society but in various other countries around the world, has been superseded by a philosophy of tribal identity over-riding issues of behavior and performance.

Part of the problem is the “multicultural” ideology that says all cultures are equally valid. It is hard even to know what that means, much less take it seriously as a guide to living in the real world.

Will time and energy spent on rap music and wearing low-riding baggy pants like guys in prison—as badges of identity—provide as good a future for young people as learning math, computers and the English language?

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