Off Balance

Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent and outspoken black professor, speaker and writer, has vigorously taken Bill Cosby to task for his campaign to emphasize personal responsibility and accountability in the black community. He has appeared on television, delivered speeches and participated in public forums, and even written a book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?," the title of which should give you a clue as to where Professor Dyson stands. The gist of Professor Dyson's argument is that Mr. Cosby is putting far more emphasis on black personal responsibility than is warranted given the social conditions that continue to plague black Americans, and he is giving comfort to racists and conservatives with his words. As a conservative myself, I resent being lumped into the same category as racists, but that's how the gatekeepers of black authenticity roll, and God knows my motives so I don't have to answer to anyone but Him. Here is Professor Dyson in his own words:

"Mr. Cosby must recognize that the right wing and the acid white conservatives in this country are taking glee in his comments because he's trying to fly the plane of Black progress with one wing. Personal responsibility is a critical and necessary wing, but he's forgetting the second wing, which is social responsibility and political responsibility, so Black people having conversations in public must never underestimate the degree to which the enemies, the opponents of our best interests will always seize upon narrow ranges of discourse to justify and legitimate their assault upon us. Mr. Cosby has an intellectual responsibility to cast his notions of moral responsibility in such terms that he is not taken advantage of by those who oppose what his fundamental interests are."

This is the criticism that blacks who speak out on the need for us to empower ourselves individually have endured for centuries. It's been a topic of discussion and division in the black community since Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, the two most influential black leaders of their day, argued over the merits of self-help and cooperation with the larger society (Washington) vs. political and social action to bring an end to white oppression (DuBois). DuBois' view eventually won the day; the founder of the NAACP planted the seeds of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and his influence is felt even today. That is positive in the sense that America would not have moved to a higher plane in its treatment and acceptance of blacks without political and social action based on an unimpeachable moral stand.

It is negative, however, in the sense that Mr. Washington's message of self-improvement has lost much of its power within the black community. In order to conform to today's black worldview, you must give primacy to the argument of continued societal oppression of blacks over any suggestion that we as a community can make significant advances by changing the man or woman in the mirror. If you try to simply balance the scales, you are accused of tipping them over altogether and thereby accommodating those in society who would do us harm. It is a no-win situation for decent, caring and responsible black men and women who are as passionate about and personally committed to black ascendancy as the black orthodoxy but believe our agenda is off-balance and losing credibility with the passage of time. I do not use the word "orthodoxy" to display my command of the English language, either; when a collection of beliefs becomes as immovable as those currently held by most in the black community, they cease to comprise an agenda, which can evolve and change, and instead take on the characteristics of a faith which harbors no compromise and sees those outside of the "church" as the damned.

Most of you are familiar with the saying attributed to Native Americans, "You cannot judge another until you have walked a mile in his moccasins." My temperament, upbringing, experiences and values all contribute to my worldview, and these are collectively unique to me. No one else on the planet can presume to have special insight into my soul or know what motivates me because they haven't lived my life. Therefore, unless the things I allow the world to see - my words and deeds - articulate my motives or intentions, no one outside of the Lord Himself can draw an accurate conclusion about what's in my heart. Absent external observations or supernatural insight, I am obligated to assign to my fellow human being the presumption of good faith. If we all followed this ground rule, we could speak more civilly to each other and perhaps make greater progress toward solutions. The statements I am about to make are not gospel but a byproduct of my worldview, and I share them to get people to think critically and objectively.

I believe black America must acknowledge the progress we've made in the past fifty-plus years as a result of the civil rights movement, and change the battle plans to fight on a different front. I believe if we continue to fight yesterday's battles in 21st century America as if nothing has changed since the 1950's and 1960s, then we will have no credibility with the majority of the American people. Whether we like it or not, what they think matters because they are the ones in charge.

We cannot deny that things have changed since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1955. Aside from some obscure state or local laws that may still be on the books, legalized discrimination is history.

Institutionalized discrimination is on the decline; diversity programs are the rule in corporate America rather than the exception, and we have numerous avenues in the legal system through which to air our grievances if we believe we have been the victims of discrimination.

Racism is a condition of the heart and will never disappear.  It may be submerged when times are good for practically everyone, but it will come out of hiding in times of stress. That said, I don't believe that society as a whole is inherently racist, nor do I believe in a deliberate white conspiracy against people of color. If either of these conditions were the rule, we wouldn't have the expansion of the black middle class, the increase in the number of black professionals, blacks in positions of authority in nearly every walk of life or the wide acceptance of black culture in its positive and negative forms. If there is a conspiracy or a pervasive attitude of racism in this country that is meant to suppress black ascendancy, then it's not particularly effective.

 Are there still racist incidents in America? Yes. Do racial disparities still exist? Yes. Is there still a need for vigilance against racism and discrimination in America? Yes. The conservative philosophy embraces the government's primary responsibilities to preserve order and do justice, so I see no inconsistency between being a conservative and fighting for equal opportunity for all Americans.

In order to transform the discussion on race in America, we need to embrace a new set of operating principles for the new millennium. I think the most important of these is the restoration of shared destiny. Since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement has placed more emphasis on what sets us apart as black people than what brings us together as Americans. Dr. King's vision was one of shared values and a common future, one that embraced the hope of the American ideal, and I believe that has been lost. Rather than use moral persuasion, conciliation and unification through our common nationality and humanity, we are instead confrontational, condemnatory and divisive. Even a man I greatly admired as a child and viewed as a role model, NAACP chairman Julian Bond, resorts to name-calling, angry pronouncements and playing on "white guilt" to get results. It's almost as if we were still in Montgomery in 1955 and nothing had changed.

These tactics worked well when "white guilt" over racism and institutionalized discrimination was still fresh and our cause was viewed as moral and just by well-meaning Americans. As the generations pass, however, the guilt subsides and the presumption of moral superiority on our part dissipates  because those same well-meaning Americans do not perceive themselves as racist and resent having that charge thrown in their faces for practically every problem in black society. Even our children don't see race the same way we do; it matters less to them than it did to us. As a leader and manager in the military, the business world, government and the non-profit sector, I've learned that if we want people to follow us, we need to find a common goal toward which to strive, and we need to extend to them the presumption of good faith in the tone and tenor of our words and deeds.

I think this is why Senator Barack Obama's campaign for President of the United States is making history. In a recent interview, he said, "My experience tells me that we have a better chance of making progress on these issues when we can ground them in a broader appeal to America's aspirations and values than when we simply are shouting racism and trying to guilt people into acting. Now that doesn't mean there aren't times for some righteous anger. But I strongly believe that Americans want to do the right thing."

I once asked my father why he was so friendly and good-natured to everyone, including whites, despite the racism he must have faced as a black man growing up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s. He told me simply, "I figure you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." I've never forgotten those words, and they've illuminated  every step I've taken in life. The Bible states the same principle even more eloquently: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18).

The other important operating principle we need to adopt is balance, both in our agenda and our representation of the black community to the larger society. Using the three-legged stool as an analogy, I believe that we’re attempting to balance the stool on one leg while largely dismissing or paying lip service to the other two.   The black community has emphasized political engagement and governmental activism to a significant extent. Even the growth of the black middle class is attributable in a significant way to its dependence on the public sector; a higher percentage of blacks than whites owe their ascendancy into the middle class and the professional ranks to government jobs. We have historically relied on government to intervene on our behalf, whether it was to end slavery, establish Reconstruction, or defeat institutionalized discrimination. This is the most basic reason why the conservative agenda fails to resonate with most blacks; government has been the main force for positive change benefitting the black community, and limiting the power of government limits our power.

I believe, however, that an unintended consequence of our dependence on government has been the weakening of those institutions that unified and sustained the black community in generations past, such as the church and the family. As we looked to benefactors outside of the black community to save us, the structure and moral values promoted by the black church and strong black families suffered.

Meanwhile, it's increasingly apparent that government at all levels has failed to solve problems in the black community that affect our ecomonic and social standing in America - black-on-black crime, high dropout rates, the number of black babies born out of wedlock and the highest abortion rates of any demographic group in the nation. Government is able to handle institutional problems that have legal remedies, but it cannot replace the moral compass that the black church and strong black families gave us in the past, and the problems we face today are moral problems. The government leg of the stool, however, is longer than the others, and the stool is off balance as a result.

The other leg of the stool represents what I’ll refer to as the managerial and professional class – business owners, executives, and technology professionals. Not only have these people had successes that we can emulate, not only are they equipped for the 21st century, they are available to devote their time, talent and treasure to the betterment of their communities. Because they have successfully assimilated into society’s mainstream, however, and tend to adopt more moderate to conservative views, they are often neglected or their commitment to the cause questioned. Frankly, I think they aren’t engaged to the extent they could be because they don't feel welcomed by the gatekeepers of black authenticity. Moreover, there aren’t enough of them; for example, blacks make up only 5.5 percent of the workforce in high-tech firms, and blacks are less likely to be employed in managerial and professional occupations and more likely to be employed in service occupations. In terms of representation and attention, this leg is too short.

The last leg of the stool represents what I’ll call personal and collective responsibility – working hard, playing by the rules, raising good families and helping each other through our churches, homeowners associations, civic groups and community service organizations. This one is controversial and difficult, but I believe this is where our greatest power lies. Why? Two reasons – first, the desire and commitment to be a better person and family member and serve your neighbors is motivated by the heart and soul, not by money, power or influence, which means it’s pure and incorruptible. Second, it’s fully within our control.

So why it is controversial? Because it suggests that racism is not the sole determinant of our current state, and that is a controversial position to take, even if one acknowledges in the same breath that racism is a continuing challenge against which we should be eternally vigilant. Still, I know I can’t change the hearts of mankind – a former office manager would tell me “Boss, that’s just an ‘is’ – ” but I can govern myself and my behavior toward others.   Why do we speak of self-improvement, family values and community service in a whisper compared to our loud condemnations against racism, real or perceived, and our demands for redress of our grievances? Is it because society is watching and we don’t want them to see our weaknesses? Does it matter that society is watching? Well, yes and no. “Yes” because our credibility increases as we stress individual and community initiative on an equal plane with society’s responsibility to create an equitable world for us all. “No” because we should demand the best from ourselves regardless of what others may think. Those who would use self-improvement as a rationale to cease collective action against racism or justify negative stereotypes about blacks are going to go down those dark paths anyway. It is foolish for us to be sensitive to the attitudes of fools to the point of inaction, especially when there is so much to be gained from helping ourselves.

The bottom line is we can’t neglect any of the legs of the stool if we’re to have a community in balance. Booker T. Washington once said, "Political activity alone cannot make a man free. Back of the ballot, he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character." That’s balance, and that’s the solution that will stimulate black ascendancy and create the livable communities we all seek.