MotherJones JF93: Backtalk

Roger Wilkins' article "White Out" (Nov./Dec.) is a nearly perfect statement of the prevailing civil-rights orthodoxy. And all the faults of that orthodoxy are manifest in it. The biggest problem poor blacks have today is neither the, government nor white America, but people like Roger Wilkins. You could not devise a more self-defeating way of looking at the world than the one reflected in his piece.

As a writer, Wilkins displays a kind of black noblesse oblige that I find a little repulsive. More importantly, he portrays blacks utterly as victims. The only dimension he presents of the homeless woman he meets - or any of the other blacks he seems to imagine - is one of victimization. The only dimension he presents of whites is their capacity to be racist and to victimize.

What does he say to this homeless woman he pretends to care so much about? Does he say there is anything she can do for herself? He has nothing to offer except the view that she is an essentially helpless person who has been abandoned by society. His is the very last message that poor blacks need to hear: that they should wait for the beneficence of society at large to reach down somehow and pull them up into the mainstream of American life.

Why does Roger Wilkins not reveal to this woman the methods by which he himself has become a member of the middle class? How did he get there? How does he stay there? What skills does he have, what attitudes, what vision of the world?

The first thing I would say to this woman is: Get out of D.C., get out of the ghetto. Two-thirds of black Americans are not in the underclass. if you look at blacks who are in the upper class or working class, the first thing that most of them have done is left situations where their children have to dodge bullets, where the schools are bad, where there are drug dealers on every corner, where there is no family life, where most families are single-parent, where everyone is on welfare. Obviously this is not a place to get ahead in life, period. No one can get ahead there. You can't do it.

There's no point in waiting for the government to redevelop these areas because it cannot possibly afford it. This is one of the biggest illusions we have now in American life, that we can somehow rebuild the inner cities for the people who live there. it simply cannot be done. It's an absurdity. We don't have those resources.

The best thing the woman can do is leave the inner city. Go out to the poorest part of the suburbs and get a shabby little apartment. Instantly, she will have improved schools for her children, safety for her young child, her own chances and opportunities. There libraries are open. The streets are quiet. And there are job opportunities.

She should definitely get back in school. She should take night classes. No matter what the government does or does not do, she'll be in the situation she's in for the rest of her life unless she becomes educated and develops some skills. That's a power she has. Why not tell her she has that power?

By hiding this knowledge from her, Roger Wilkins is the worst sort of oppressor. If Wilkins were homeless, he would do just what I'm suggesting.

My father had no more than a third-grade education, but he did have this information. He left the South and moved to the big city. When he got work, he moved out to the suburbs. All his life, he moved to improve himself, to improve his opportunities. I'm here today purely because he did that. And he showed me that those are the kinds of values that enable you to advance.

But when you cast people utterly as victims, you destroy their sense of self-determination. You make them passive, you make them waiters instead of actors. And you become the problem. If you keep asking white people to view blacks as helpless victims, what filters through their consciousness often comes out the other end as "nigger." Roger Wilkins is exploiting poor blacks to become their middleman representative with the larger society. He is ripping away the dignity of his own people, and then being angry when people don't see that dignity. To the readers of Mother Jones, I would say that Roger Wilkins is also your problem. He is trying to involve you in a symbiosis of black anger and white guilt. He is trying, in a sense, to extort your money and support. And you are happy to have him do it, because he grants you your innocence. You can say I'm not racist, I'm good, I care about blacks. This white guilt is the newest form of black oppression: denying blacks their full humanity, saying, yes, blacks are inferior because of racism.

But most white Americans - if they are honest with themselves - read an article like that and are repulsed. They are tired of being shamed into making changes in America. All it can do is make whites feel more impotent.

This has been the Achilles' heel of the progressive movement. Progressives - and I think of myself as one - have got to find a way to separate themselves from the ideology of victimization. It is not unprogressive to admit that blacks have an enormous responsibility for themselves, that their fate is in their own hands. But we're not doing that because we are locked in this silly, unending struggle with guilt and innocence.

I certainly agree with Roger Wilkins that there is more that society can do and ought to do for poor blacks. We need to devise structures that can enable people to leave areas like South Central Los Angeles and the South Side of Chicago and help them become better educated. But we also need to communicate much more directly to those people the urgency, the absolute urgency, of individual responsibility.

Let's tell the whole truth. Until all progressives and the black leadership do so, we will have no credibility.

Shelby Steele is the author of The Content of Our Character and a professor of English ad San Jose State University, California. His comments were given in an interview with Tom Schmitz.

Roger Wilkins replies: Let me see if I understand correctly Professor Steele's prescriptions for the homeless woman I encountered. He says I should have given her lessons from my own life about how to get into the middle class and that he, himself, would have advised her to move to the suburbs and embark on a self-improvement program.

If you combine his two proposals, you would have a conversation that goes roughly like this:

"Young lady, get lucky. Reverse time and trade in your teenage parents for something better. If you're as lucky as I was, you'll pick out two college-educated, middle-class parents, and then you'll be given an education so that opportunities will abound and hard work will really pay off. You'll also pick a life period for yourself when the economy is expanding and not contracting, and a time in which your young adulthood occurs amid increasing, rather than diminishing, racial understanding.

"But if you don't have enough backbone to do that, then take yourself, your child, your torn and dirty clothes, and your empty purse and go to the suburbs and find a landlord who will rent you a ~shabby apartment' for what you can afford to pay. Then get yourself a job (Professor Steele is sure there are jobs for you) and enroll in school (after finding safe child care that you can afford) and then you'll be on the ladder upward, just like Shelby Steele's father (who created his life in entirely different economic times)."

The notion that someone can seriously propose such prescriptions for the hundreds of thousands of black Americans who have fallen out of the economy when, among other things, two million industrial manufacturing jobs disappeared during the 1980s, is breathtaking. As social policy, that ranks right up there with the best thinking of Marie Antoinette.

Professor Steele claims a weariness with the business of guilt or innocence, but he surely seems in a rush to find me guilty of racial oppression. In his haste to state his conclusion, he overlooks a few facts (not to mention the great bulk of the article he sought to critique). Poor black people may be poor, but that does not mean that they are stupid and need me to tell them that they have been victimized by forces beyond their control. Though Professor Steele may not see it, these people recognize that there is racism in this society and that jobs their grandfathers had (and many jobs previously held by their mothers, as well) have disappeared.

They may not understand the precise dynamics of the brutal Reagan-Bush social policies or of the globalization and deindustrialization of the economy, but they know that they have been slammed to the wall. And they know it because most of them - like the woman with whom I spoke - have tried like hell to climb out of the hole they're in, but there have been no jobs and few services to help them. I'm all for personal responsibility and empowerment, but people have to have something to stand on before they can begin to climb. Basically, Professor Steele is calling for people who have no boots to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Finally, though Professor Steele says I portray all white people as racist (he certainly could not have read the article very carefully), he seems to have less faith in them than I do. He says the country will never rebuild the ghettos. People said we'd never end slavery, but we did. People said we'd never end segregation, but we did. Some people say "never" a lot, but others, good strong-whites and blacks, have continued to struggle and society has continued to change.

Frederick Douglass taught us that power concedes nothing without a struggle. It will surely concede nothing to somebody who is confused about who the enemy is and insists on stumbling around the battlefield, brandishing the white flag of surrender high above his head.

Editor's note: Readers are invited to join this debate. We'll publish additional responses in the next issue of Mother Jones.

HEALTHY APPROACH

I was glad to see California insurance commissioner John Garamendi's plan for health-care reform treated fairly in Constance Matthiessen's article "Code Blue" (Nov./Dec.), although not in depth. In a Clinton administration, you will discover that the kind of approach taken by Garamendi deserves more prominent and sustained attention. Indeed, it may well reach California via changes in Washington. Stay tuned.

--Paul Starr, Princeton, New Jersey

Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect and the author, most recntly, of The Logic of Health Care Reform.