My latest guilty pleasure is an independent website called hotghettomess.com. I turn to it whenever I am fed up with the Serious Debate on African-American Personal Responsibility taking place among black writers, academics and politicians and the entertainment crowd that mingles among them. There are no big-time black intellectuals to be found on hotghettomess, no policy wonkery tricked out in hip-hop meter as favored by University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson. No, at hotghettomess you get the nitty-gritty version of the debate.
But before you go clicking over to it, be forewarned: It is not for the faint of heart. And before you look, a primer is in order: The nature of the debate (a k a “How Come We Still Have Millions of Blacks Mired in Poverty and Self-Destructive Behaviors?”) is best described as complex and enervating, centered as it is on a slippery mix of history, cultural beliefs, institutional inequities, politics and values.
The Serious Debate is not new; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois clashed over it, as have Black Panthers and civil rights activists and comedians like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Sinbad and Dave Chappelle–most recently, in the last case, over blacks’ use of the word “nigger.” Whites have chimed in too, notably former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who caught hell from all sides in the 1960s by suggesting that the notion of black personal responsibility had a role in the public-policy debate over welfare. Throughout, the debate’s rhetorical contours most closely resemble a snake eating its own tail.
Overwhelmingly, its highest-profile combatants are men. Most recently these have included Bill Cosby and journalist Juan Williams, who argue that more black Americans must step up their games, i.e., take better care of their children, focus on education, be willing to take low-rung, entry-level jobs. Their seemingly socially conservative message is not directly at odds with the traditional, moral-suasive, government-aided approach. Yet it is perceived as “blaming the victim” by a segment of black commentators and academics who might be seen as representing “the street.”
In 2004 Cosby got up at a Brown v. Board of Education fiftieth anniversary event in Washington’s Constitution Hall and delivered a rambling tirade about how today’s “low-income” blacks have failed to live up to the promise and ideals of the civil rights generation. In response, Dyson unleashed a tome called Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? In the book and subsequent public appearances and op-ed articles, Dyson purported to out Cos as a bougie Old Fart who blames poor blacks for institutional inequalities beyond their control. Late last summer, Dyson and Williams engaged in verbal fisticuffs on a National Public Radio program about blacks, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Williams, who has positioned himself as Cosby’s chief sympathizer and defender, is the author of a book titled Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It. Listening to their exchanges on that NPR broadcast of Talk of the Nation gave me a headache. In the end, both men had plugged their respective books. But it was hard to tell if any valuable information got through to listeners.
I don’t doubt their sincerity; I simply think it is worth questioning whether large male egos will continue to smother in the cradle a more productive approach. Certainly the assignment editors and bookers who continually give them airtime seem unable or unwilling to encourage discussion of what should be the core of this debate: the elusive internal spark that must be found, nurtured and fired up before “personal responsibility” can lift anyone up.