May 28 2013
Patrice J. Lee
White people are still racist against all people – especially black people. This nation’s racially discriminatory policies of the past continue to bind black men to lives of failure. Changing perceptions about black people require government intervention.
Wait! These are not my opinions! These were the premises of a recent op-ed by Darron Smith, a black assistant professor at the University of Tennessee. He was upset by comments from his new white neighbor that the blight, crime, and violence in Memphis are driven by “ignorant, uneducated and low income 'blacks' in the neighborhood” – except him. As an African-American, I wish Smith had been less quick to take offense and more willing to think about the implications of what his neighbors--perhaps tactlessly--said.
Smith seems to take these words so personally that he can’t get past what he feels is a personal affront to confront the truth about crime in the city.
Black men are typecast and the face of crime is “young, black, and male.” Instead of working to change these perceptions black men all too often yield to the same negative behaviors and continue to perpetuate the stereotypes.
Here’s the gem:
Crime and our perceptions of crime are functions of America’s racial past and a capitalistic, individualistic society determined to empower property rights at the expense of people. Young black men are caught in a cycle of inter-generational poverty, despondency and a general lack of trust. Social isolation (not having significant friends or family that one can rely on), low-income status and early childhood trauma (in utero or out) are the conditions that produce crime and deviancy within American society, which can be eliminated with good government policy.
So the root problem is the promotion of property rights and the solution is government intervention? Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that the preservation of property rights is foundational to democracy, a system that places all men on equal footing, and tackle Smith's proposed solution.
Perceptions aren’t passed down to individuals from the state and can’t be changed by the stroke of a pen on a piece of legislation or a regulatory mandate. If nothing else, forcing someone to believe that a group of people is in need of special treatment by government mandate only reinforces the idea that these people must be different. A more productive goal would be to build up the perceptions that black men are just like white men and Asian men and that they should all be treated equally.
And Smith leaves no room for personal responsibility. Our nation must do a better job of helping reformed convicts be reintegrated into the workforce and society, but that does not give any man –much more black men–a free pass.
One black man addresses this quite well in a recent commencement address:
But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As graduates – as Morehouse Men – you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you are about to collect. And that’s the power of your example.
This was President Barack Obama to the all-male, all-black graduating class of 2013 at Morehouse College. I agree with the President on very little, especially policy, but to this specific comment I give him an “Amen!”
Obama demonstrates that changing the face of crime doesn’t begin in Washington or Memphis’s city hall. Smith would do well to take this lesson to heart.