Calling for Personal Responsibility Does Not Mean the Crime of Slavery is Absolved

There is a new trend where supporters of Black Live Matter and other civil rights movements have decided to roll back on the call to ‘personal responsibility’ for black people, especially young black men, citing that it’s unfair to ask people who are disadvantaged in every way when compared to whites to be personally responsible for oneself. Some writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates believe that it’s unfair to ask one of the most underprivileged populations in America, a population due to institutionalized racism has been denied access to adequate housing, good education, good infrastructure, easy access to good jobs and subjected to indiscriminate police harassment and brutality to show ‘personal responsibility’ when there are so many obstacles against them since birth.

Coates, in particular took an objection to the speech President Obama gave to the graduating class of Morehouse College, an excerpt below:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”

We’ve got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.

There is nothing wrong with what the president said here. As a black man addressing black graduates, what he said was true, on point and appropriate. There are a billion young people from China, Brazil and India ready to compete with the best and brightest of this country and are willing to work for less and longer hours. Competition is worldwide now, not just the 50 states. Commerce is global now, someone in Brazil can work for a company in America, on a computer and Skype. Ta-Nehisi Coates also strongly objects to the fact that in order for black people to succeed, they have to be twice as good as everyone else and by definition is racist and unfair. Coates goes on to say:

Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people—and particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses”—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of “all America,” but he also is singularly the scold of “black America.”

He views Obama’s comments as scolding, but many others see it as a wake up call, an encouragement to the black youth of America. Obama while speaking to these students as their president, but also as a man who had an absent, less than a good example of a father himself and he felt that hole keenly as a young man, he is telling the young graduates that they can do better, aspire to be better and achieve more. As for the reference to Barnard College, this is confusing. Barnard College is a college for women, the issues women face are different than from issues black youth face in this country. Women’s challenges are different so if the president would give a commencement speech to the graduates of Barnard, of course it would be a different speech. And to Coates’s point of unfairness to expect more from blacks and minorities than whites to succeed, there’s no argument with that, women in business face the same thing, but it’s one of those things in life we have to accept to get to where we need to go. And when enough women and minorities succeed to the top of any profession, real equality where equal amounts of effort is put in to succeed is realized.

It is my fear that in this new energized push for Black Lives Matter and calling for all to end institutionalized racism and white supremacy, the also very important personal responsibility is lost in that message. Everyone needs to hold themselves accountable, not just black people. The police, all branches of law enforcement, schools all need to be held personally responsible for their deeds. On a individual level, in order for anyone to achieve personal growth and progress (leaving external factors of racism and discrimination aside), personal responsibility is vitally important.

More importantly, Obama calling for personal responsibility in black youth does not mitigate what black people have to go through just to get somewhere, the extra obstacles they face due to institutionalized racism, it does not diminish the crimes of slavery, Jim Crow, separate but equal, housing discrimination and all other forms of discrimination that have shut black people out of achieving prosperity. From hearing various interviews and speeches the president gave on race issues, he did not imply that black people were ‘in the business’ of making excuses and he fully understands the implication of mass incarceration of young black men leaving behind fatherless children, and how unfair the justice system is towards brown and black people. Obama also understands that he could have easily been one of those black youths stuck in the school to prison pipeline if it were not early childhood intervention on the part of his mother and her family. Obama is also correct in saying ‘when a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.’ So to say that Obama uses his presidency pulpit to ‘scold’ young black men is cherry picking his messages. The president, along with the horrified masses is saddened and shocked by the spate of killings done by white police to black people, and in light of that he has balanced his rhetoric the other way, which is to tell law enforcement to hold their police departments accountable.

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