A letter that crossed my desk a month ago seethed with outrage from the very first word.
“Let’s see,” Ernest Keyes wrote. “Fifty years (since the) Civil Rights Act passage. Fifty years of welfare assistance. Fifty years of affirmative action. Fifty years since MLK stated, ‘I Have A Dream!’?”
It continued: “In these 50 years, we have seen and heard it is never enough. We have seen communities and people wanting to be rewarded/entitled for producing negative social factors, and often seeking to blame someone or something else in life. Black culture will not accept their lack of responsibility to themselves, their families, and race.”
It wasn’t very long, but it was forceful and provocative. Would you publish it?
I did. I thought it gave voice to a view that needed to be heard. And since it appeared, it has sparked a lively conversation.
Recent headlines kept the dialogue current. There was Cliven Bundy’s inane rant about “the Negro” and picking cotton. Billionaire pro sports owner Donald Sterling’s lifetime banishment from his own team because of his racist attitudes. Then, much too close for comfort, the shooting death of an N.C. A&T football player. After two young black male suspects were arrested and charged, a reader challenged, via email: “I hope you will demand the end of the culture that probably caused the student’s death just as hard as you correctly demanded the Clippers owner’s punishment!”
That word “culture” keeps surfacing. In an April 16 letter, Bob Gaines, a self-described progressive, cited “the horrendously self-destructive culture of young black males. It is a hardened, almost impenetrable, culture of violence, drugs, disdain for work; pit bulls and dog fighting; contempt for women; contempt for educational attainment; ugly, violent, misogynistic music; homophobic behavior; and modes of dress that would embarrass a Third World country, and it has been steadily developing for at least 30 to 40 years.”
Gaines concluded: “I don’t know what Ernest Keyes’ underlying motives were, but he has a point.”
Kenneth Laurent countered, in his own letter: “While I understand and appreciate where Bob Gaines is coming from …, I reject his premise that we ‘ignore’ the self-destructive behaviors of African-American young men. One only need look at suspension rates in schools and incarceration rates in our prisons. … We as a society are pretty good at the condemnation of those who engage in these behaviors, but we are terrible at providing realistic alternatives.”
If you’re curious, Keyes is a retired, 67-year-old businessman who prefers being called “Andy.” And, yes, he is white. He is an independent who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. “I would never make that mistake again,” he hastily adds. His favorite columnist is the black conservative, Thomas Sowell.
“I am not a racist,” Keyes says. “I am a culturist. The victim mentality in the black community needs to be addressed. More black leaders need to openly discuss these issues. Also, they need to admit to themselves that it’s really happening instead of making excuses.”
He says he is worried about erosion of families among all Americans but believes the problem is especially acute among African-Americans. And he believes that if Americans can’t have an honest dialogue about race, the problem won’t get fixed. “It’s very easy to write me off as an old fart who grew up at a different time,” he says. But he says he’s so serious about these issues that he wants to start a dialogue between “everyday people” from different points of view about it, maybe on a public-access cable TV show.
I told him I probably believe more in personal responsibility than he does. But I also believe past and lingering racism is a factor. For instance, half the federal and state prison populations are black, and the educational system still struggles to connect to black boys. Even in pre-K, black children are suspended at higher rates.
But we agreed more often than we didn’t. And he seemed genuinely interested in listening.
So, is the problem the self-destructive behavior of black males or is it a society that deludes itself into thinking institutional racism is only a figment of Al Sharpton’s imagination?
My answer is yes. It’s both. And until we have an honest reckoning about it, it will only grow worse.
I believe the answer begins in the black community, which has to see this for what it is: a crisis. And to take greater initiative in saving our children, especially our boys.
But it doesn’t end there. Unequal justice and opportunity in America planted the seeds of this crisis, and we are reaping a harvest of poverty and crime and prisons we can’t build fast enough to hold all of the lives we’re writing off.
MCT Information Services
Allen Johnson is editorial page editor of the Greensboro News & Record.