Revolution #138, August 3, 2008
Pushing That Personal Responsibility Poison
OBAMA SINGS LEAD IN THE BLAME THE POOR CHOIR
Imagine you were hit by an avalanche, and buried under tons of snow. Then, imagine that you’d been given a shovel and were being told it was your own personal responsibility to dig yourself out, when all the personal digging in the world isn't going to stop that snow from rolling in on you or get you out from under it.
That’s just what Barack Obama is telling Black people when he says they need to take more “responsibility” for their lives.
Speaking to the NAACP convention on July 14, he said: "...Now I know some say I've been too tough on folks about this responsibility stuff. But I'm not going to stop talking about it. Because I believe that in the end, it doesn't matter how much money we invest in our communities, or how many 10-point plans we propose, or how many government programs we launch—none of it will make any difference if we don't seize more responsibility in our own lives."
And specifically, Obama has been trying to put the situation Black people face onto the breakup of the Black family. When he spoke at a predominantly Black congregation in Chicago on Father's Day, he said, “[I]f we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
And, according to Obama, that is why Black people face the situation they’re in. In his same Father’s Day speech, Obama: “How many times in the last year has this city lost a child at the hands of another child? How many times have our hearts stopped in the middle of the night with the sound of a gunshot or a siren? How many teenagers have we seen hanging around on street corners when they should be sitting in a classroom? How many are sitting in prison when they should be working, or at least looking for a job? How many in this generation are we willing to lose to poverty or violence or addiction? How many?"
Ever since slave days, the U.S. rulers have put the conditions that Black people face on some supposed character flaw in Black people. Previously they attributed the conditions of existence they enforced on Black people to them being inferior to whites, or that they were lazy and ignorant. Today this ideological offensive is centered on arguing that Black people have to stop making poor choices and take more responsibility in their lives, and a big part of that is blaming the whole situation facing Black people on the breakup of the Black family.
The Origins of the
In the midst of the rebellions of the ’60s, when rebellions rocked the cities and revolution was in the air, the U.S. government came out with a major report in 1965 called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (also known as “the Moynihan Report” after its author, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was a major ideologue for white supremacy behind a thin coating of liberalism).
The report acknowledged a growing “gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society.” It also noted with concern dangers in what it called “The Negro Revolution”—including the influence of revolutionary trends (“On the far left, the attraction of Chinese Communism can no longer be ignored”).
In that context, serving a need to obscure and misdirect (even while pretending to care about) the conditions of Black people, the report ignored the already emerging deindustrialization of the cities, and essentially trivialized and dismissed the impact of societal white supremacy. Reversing cause and effect, the report—which continues to be a benchmark of mainstream “analysis” of the problems facing Black people—put out the message that: “The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure…the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.”
The Black Family, Poverty and Oppression
When most Black people were slaves working on plantations from can't see in the morning till can't see at night, the obstacles to developing stable families were plain as day. Black people did marry and raise children, but if it would benefit the slave master, a husband could be taken from his wife or a parent from their child and sold to another owner.
Then, after the civil war, when most Black people remained enslaved in a new form—as sharecroppers on the land, stable 2 parent families were the rule, not the exception among Black people because large families were needed for the kind of farming that sharecroppers did. But at the same time, the overwhelming majority of Black people were desperately poor, and subjected to lynch mob terror. If it was really the case that today, the number of female-headed families is responsible for poverty, then why didn't having mostly stable, two-parent families lift more Black people out of poverty back then?
After World Wars 1 and 2, Black people were drawn to cities across the country to work in the factories. Two-parent families were still a fit for their roles. It was only when those capitalist owners began to relocate those factories to far out suburbs and even move them halfway around the world, depriving Black people of jobs and the ability to raise families, that the numbers of Black youth being raised in female-headed families began to skyrocket.
It wasn't that Black men were choosing to not marry the mothers of their children or choosing not to be involved in supporting them. It was that the capitalist system was cutting the ability to do that out from under Black people. Let's say you were a young Black man in the 1960s and your girlfriend got pregnant. You could drop out of school and get a job in a factory. It might have been a job on the bottom rung of the workforce that paid less and was harder and dirtier work than what white workers did. But at least it would give you a shot at being able to get married and support a family. A young Black man today in a similar situation would be faced with different choices. The factory jobs were gone, and you could either get a job flipping burgers in a fast food joint, if you could find one to hire you, or get involved in some kind of hustle, legal or illegal, and likely end up in jail or dead. The very operation of the capitalist system would be facing you with a narrow range of choices, and none of them would give you a reliable basis to raise a family.
Add to this continuing discrimination that makes finding work harder for Black people. A study done in Milwaukee found that employers were twice as likely to call back white job applicants with no criminal records as they were Black applicants with no criminal records. And they were MORE likely to call back white applicants who said they had criminal records than they were Black applicants with no criminal records! A similar study found that when written applications were sent to employers using the first names Jamal and Greg for applicants with similar qualifications, Jamal—the name that sounded Black—was 50% less likely to get contacted about coming in for an interview.
Add to this the large numbers of Black men who are in and out of prison: According to a recent study done by the Sentencing Project, 1 in 8 Black men in their twenties are in prison today! Many others are on probation or parole. This is both because the operation of this system has locked many Black youth out of any legitimate way to survive and because of discrimination in the criminal "in-justice" system. A study by the same Sentencing Project in April 2001 found that African-Americans were 13% of the illegal drug users in the U.S. Yet they comprised 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of those convicted for drug possession, and 74% of those sent to jail for that offense.
This is the backdrop against which large numbers of Black men, especially young Black men, find themselves unable to raise a family or support their children. And against which large numbers of Black women are left raising families on their own. And these come down to the way this system operates, not some personal flaws of Black people.
Who or what is responsible for all this? Did Black people decide one day to close down the factories they had been working in? Did they choose to fire themselves and move the factories to Thailand or Mexico to exploit the people there even more viciously than they had been exploited? Did Black people gut the educational system in the inner cities to the point where the schools are increasingly like prisons and serve as little more than way stations to prison for many of the kids who go thru them? Are Black people responsible for the discrimination that makes it much harder for them to find work than it is for whites? Did they choose to have the law enforcement system criminalize a whole generation of Black youth?
The answers to these questions leap out at you. Of course they didn't make these decisions. These conditions that Black people face are the results of the way the capitalist system works. It's the chase after maximum profits for the relative handful of capitalists who own and control the factories, mines, and other major means to create wealth and their overall domination of society that creates and recreates these conditions.
Blaming the Masses for the Situation the System Puts Them In Makes Things Even Worse
Now some people would say, OK, we know there are larger forces responsible for the situation Black people find themselves in. But even given that, don't Black people need to take personal responsibility for their communities and their lives. Wouldn't that help to deal with the situation that so many Black children are raised by single mothers without their fathers being a meaningful presence in their lives? Or so many of the youth being caught up in gangs, drugs, and crime? Or problems like "Black on Black" violence? If more Black people were listening to and acting on Obama's message of taking responsibility for their lives, wouldn't these problems be at least partly alleviated?
No they wouldn't. I’ve already talked about the fact that if you are covered in tons of snow from an avalanche, all the personal digging in the world won’t get you out from under all that snow. People can’t get out from the conditions they face by taking personal responsibility. I’ve explained why Black youth can’t just go out and get a decent job, and that for the millions of Black people trapped in highly oppressive conditions there is no way for people to work within this situation to make things better in any real way. So all the talk about Black people taking personal responsibility won't do a damn thing to get them, and the whole society, out of the mess we're all in. It won't do that because again this mess is the result of the workings of the system of capitalism and its chase after maximum profit. Lectures from Barack Obama, or before him Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton, about Black people's wrong choices or them having to take personal responsibility only serve to reinforce the situation Black people find themselves in. They do that because they misdirect people's attention, away from the system that's causing these problems and away from the real solution to these problems—forging a revolutionary people that could spearhead an attempt to get rid of this system thru revolution when and if an opportunity to do that arises thru the workings of the system itself.
Hammering away at Black people that it's their own damn fault that they're in the situation they're in can have the effect of sucking the hope out of a section of people who have an important role to play in forging a revolutionary people in this country. The capitalist rulers of this country remember how the powerful uprisings of Black people in the 1960s, together with developments around the world, knocked them and their system back on its heels.
They're feverishly working to ensure that they aren't faced with something like this again. Part of how they're going at this is subjecting the Black masses to vicious repression and criminalizing large sections of Black youth. And at the same time they're working to sap the spirit of resistance of the Black masses. If they can convince people their problems are of their own making, they will be a good ways towards doing that. And convincing people that the conditions Black people face are their own fault and not the fault of the system undercuts a sense among other sections of people that they should stand with Black people in building resistance to their oppression. This message coming from the mouth of Barack Obama gives it special resonance.
Changing the Situation…. And Changing People
In saying this, I am not trying to deny or gloss over the fact that a lot of Black people are into some bad shit. Youth are killing each other, and people desperate to survive are preying on each other. Too many Black men are into the male supremacy that is rife in this society, and too many Black women combine U.S. society's “look out for #1” ethos with accepting its outlook on women's place. Black people do need to get out of all this shit. They need to move from being victimized by this system to fighting to get rid of this system. They, along with basic masses of all nationalities and people from other backgrounds too, need to come forward as emancipators of humanity.
But lectures about personal responsibility won't help make that happen. This will stand in the way of people getting what's the real source of the problems they face, and what's the real way to get out from under them. People don't see any way out and can begin to think it's because they're fucked up. And it is a fact: Black people, as a people, are not going to "make it" under this system. The only real hope for the masses in their millions is carving out a radically different future thru revolution and changing themselves as they fight to bring a whole new world into being.
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