Thursday, August 05, 2004

The most remarked on comment from Obama's rousing keynote speech at the Democratic convention was: "Go into any inner-city neighborhood and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard, concurs with Obama and expands on that theme.
"A lot of us," Mr. Obama argues, "hesitate to discuss these things in public because we think that if we do so it lets the larger society off the hook. We're stuck in an either/or mentality - that the problem is either societal or it's cultural."

It's important to talk about life chances - about the constricted set of opportunities that poverty brings. But to treat black people as if they're helpless rag dolls swept up and buffeted by vast social trends - as if they had no say in the shaping of their lives - is a supreme act of condescension. Only 50 percent of all black children graduate from high school; an estimated 64 percent of black teenage girls will become pregnant. (Black children raised by female "householders" are five times as likely to live in poverty as those raised by married couples.) Are white racists forcing black teenagers to drop out of school or to have babies?

Gates recognizes that race "issues are ticklish, no question, but they're badly served by silence or squeamishness." How true. Right wingers have found a way to discuss race with coded language that assumes blacks are their own and only worst enemies. Conservatives assume no responsibility for social networks to help the poor, including blacks. We on the left have a different problem. Let me offer myself as an illustration. I've been disgusted for years with our society's failure to give blacks equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, child care for working mothers, and so forth. But as a teacher who retired from a half black school, I could hardly miss or dismiss their all too common apathy about school or their frequent disciplinary problems. It's such a taboo subject, though, that I've avoided it for fear of offending or being labeled racist. What a conundrum we progressives have when it comes to discussing race.

If you'd like to see the rest of Gates's column, click here.

Jo Etta


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