Monday, May 28, 2012


Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, was on the Colbert Report last week.  In the interview, she claimed that people of color don't use drugs at higher rates than whites.  Colbert then asked her, "why didn't David Simon set The Wire in Greenwich, Connecticut?"  I'm skeptical of her claim.  What kind of drugs are being compared?  Surely more crack is smoked in the ghetto than in Greenwich.  But regardless, an obvious answer to this question is that the Wire is about the drug trade, and whites must get their drugs from somewhere.  I'm also wary of the notion seemingly argued in the book that much of the problems facing the black community have to do with drug laws and biased enforcement.  But having not read the book, I'll refrain from comment.

However, a common response to the notion of dysfunction in the black community, mainly coming from the the right, is the idea that  "they need to fix their own problems".  This rests on the assumption that larger society bears no responsibility - whether structurally or because of explicit bias.  Further, many on the right claim that indeed, it is the claim that minorities are in any way victims that actively perpetuates a sense of victim hood, thus driving behavioral dysfunction.  If one thinks of oneself as a victim, then a nihilism sets in and hopelessness leads to low self-expectations and lowered standards of behavior.  This is quite a theory!  But is it true?

 In my work with at-risk, minority teenagers, there is some degree of resentment and distrust of white people, and it is sometimes vocalized as an "excuse" of sorts to explain their poor behavior. But the larger dynamic of dysfunctional community breakdown and lack of societal capital is far more salient. It isn't as if these kids are sitting around resenting white people and thinking up a narrative of how their problems are all white people's fault.

Actually, in my many conversations with them regarding their poor behavior, they cite the existence of cultural norms in which they feel they must participate in order to survive. They fight because they have to prove they are tough. They misbehave because they don't have a strong family structure at home supporting them. Their role-models are not academically inclined, but toughs who have lots of girls and smoke or sell lots of pot.

Now, they do see themselves as victims. But they are! They are profoundly unlucky, born into such a world. They don't understand who is to blame. They don't understand how the system works, much less how white racism might even be an issue. The most cohesive narrative I've heard has revolved around illuminati conspiracies - their music idols are frequently thought of as having literally made deals with the devil to achieve fame and fortune.

No, their sense of victimization is based on looking around them, at their friends and families. They began down a negative path when they were in elementary school, struggling with schoolwork and dealing with chaos at home. Before they knew it they had developed behaviors and habits that made them rebels. Success meant failing well.

They say that black America must take a hard look at itself. Doesn't it already, on a daily basis? People are doing the best they know how. My students' parents are trying to parent the best they know how. Yet teen parents and dropouts are going to be at a severe disadvantage when raising children, not only because of their lower levels of human capital, but because of social and economic segregation that places them in neighborhoods, peer groups and apartment complexes with low levels of societal capital.

My main issue with what seems to be the thesis of Alexander's book is that it equates the conscious, explicit racism of Jim Crow with a modern system in which racial bias might exist, but is marginal to the larger structural problems afflicting poor and minority communities. I think it is a disservice to individuals to limit the scope of the inequities they face to racial bias, when they are caught up in a far larger and more damaging social and economic system that limits their opportunities from birth.

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