Jonetta Rose Barras, author of Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women (2002), is my favorite commentator on African-American culture. She’s also a former journalistic colleague of The Other Charlotte and me; the three of us all worked at the Washington Times during the 1980s. Jonetta’s specialty then as now was sharp coverage of local politics in Washington, especially the doings of Marion Barry, our city’s famous cocaine-addict former mayor, but she has since moved on to social commentary on a wider scale, where she refuses to buy into the liberal platitudes that facilely blame white racism for the dysfunctional culture of the African-American underclass.
“Daddy’s Little Girl,” based partly on Jonetta’s own experiences growing up knowing that her father had abandoned her and her mother, confronts the emergence of female-headed families as practically a social norm these days. Nearly 50 percent of American children grow up without a dad living at home, and the percentage is far higher for African-Americans. The feminist establishment thinks that’s just fine, but Jonetta examines the stunting and depressing consequences, for boys certainly, but also for girls, of not experiencing a father’s love and guidance. Library Journal called Jonetta’s book “a brilliant, heartfelt exploration of the human condition, with numerous excellent suggestions for rising above desperation and healing deep personal wounds.”
Now Jonetta, in an essay in yesterday’s Washington Post, takes on the furor surrounding actor Bill Cosby’s speech at a recent NAACP gathering in which he minced no words about the foul language, high crime rates, and nonexistent job and educational skills all too prevalent among underclass youths–and demanded that blacks themselves stop blaming whites and the government for their problems and take some responsibility of their own. Cosby was promptly denounced as disloyal to his people by most black leaders, including some NAACP officials.
Jonetta points out, however, that several African-Americans privately told her that Cosby’s remarks were right on the mark, and that the reason for the official NAACP outrage was a deep class conflict in African-American society that its leadership pretends doesn’t exist. It’s between the educated black middle class, which is thriving and growing, and the black lower class, which is in cultural disarray, thanks to a combination of the welfare system, the ideology-ridden public-education bureaucracy, white liberal guilt, and a black establishment that during the 1960s bought into a radical notion of black solidarity that glorified antisocial traits. Class conflict has always existed in black America, notes Jonetta, but in the past it was the lighter-skinned middle class that set the cultural norms, which valued family, high educational standards, and refinement of speech and manners. Jonetta writes:
“The color dynamic flipped during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s; dark-skinned blacks became the rage, and poor people were dubbed ‘authentic’ blacks. Their neighborhoods became the sacrosanct ‘community’; a failure to genuflect to the poor was sacrilege and cause for banishment. Then as now, it was unpopular to speak ill of the poor; that was traitorous behavior and signaled that the attacker was either guilty of self-loathing or had joined forces with white America….
“Years of defective cultural narratives have convinced many low-income people that their personal worth and value is tied to being poor. Losing their victim status would mean losing their authenticity. They are encouraged to cling to each other and snipe at the middle class, calling them sellouts and Uncle Toms, rather than seeing them as people to emulate.
“When crime and prison stats go up, black leaders point to ‘three strikes’ laws and discriminatory sentencing guidelines. These are legitimate issues, but not the sole reasons for the high incarceration rate among blacks or the high crime rate in black communities.
“When the dropout rate or low test scores are mentioned, black parents don’t see themselves as responsible. That’s the government’s yoke. The most recent demon destroying public education is, of course, the No Child Left Behind law.
“African-American families have deteriorated as black leaders have pointed to government policies as the reason for teen pregnancies and absent fathers. They have refused to embrace ‘family values,’ seeing them only as part of a Republican-inspired platform, although blacks even during slavery had a strong belief in family. This decline is at the root of much of what ails many lower-income communities.
“But the middle class hasn’t been exempt from the adverse effects of the civil rights leadership’s race-based mantra. While other populations are encouraged to snag the American dream, blacks are forced to cohere, and the middle class is stunted. Although there has been a steady rate of growth in its ranks, that growth is relatively slow compared to that of other ethnic and immigrant populations, because moving on up — ‘ la television’s George Jefferson — is perceived as abandoning or not caring about ‘the community.'”
The black middle class of the old days could be snobbish and outright discriminatory in its treatment of darker-skinned lower-class blacks, writes Jonetta, but they also formed charitable organizations that reached out to help them climb the social ladder. That’s what today’s African-American middle class should be doing, she advises, rather than pretending that underclass problems don’t exist, fingering white racism as the sole culprit, or expecting quick fixes from the government. She writes:
“That could take African Americans, especially the civil rights leaders among them, beyond shrillness to a genuine analysis of the problems in black America and how to fix them — including the simmering class struggle that is now out of the jar and on the table.”