Our silence is a hurtful silence

Posted: Jun 09, 2004 12:00 AM

By now we've all heard Bill Cosby's remark that "Lower economic (black) people are not holding up their end in this deal."

Most would agree that little of what Cosby said about poor blacks was politically correct. It was, however, 100 percent right. More to the point, Cosby did something that few black leaders seem willing do: deal publicly and honestly with issues that rip our community apart. That was important not just because of the absence of anything resembling political correctness (black people are not supposed to discuss our community's shortcomings), but because it prompted vigorous discussion about issues that have plagued black America for far too long.

Consider for a moment, as Cosby did, the alarming disparity in graduation rates between white and minority students. According to a recent report conducted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and the Urban Institute, only 50 percent of black high school students graduated in 2001. By contrast, 75 percent of white students obtained their high school diplomas that year. This is a problem. Plainly, someone needs to start talking about the harm we are inflicting on ourselves.

In particular, we need to start talking about the disintegration of the black family. This is as frightening as anything that's happened in our time. Seventy percent of black babies are born to unmarried parents. In effect, transient couplings have replaced the institution of marriage in black America. These "transient couples" are often children themselves and lack the means to provide material support for their family. Abuse and neglect follow.

Many children in abusive households go on to become violent abusers themselves. Countless others will simply never learn how to be responsible, loving parents. The cycle of abuse and neglect will affect child welfare and self-esteem issues for an entire generation of black Americans. We cannot pretend this is not happening. Nor can we lay all the blame at the feet of the white man.

And that's really all Cosby was saying: family and education are the bedrock of our lives. We can't ignore it when these areas are in crisis. Nor can we transfer the blame onto others. Sadly, it seems as though somewhere along the line we lost faith in our ability to deal with our problems. Many of us don't talk openly about our community's shortcomings for fear that this will only nourish the forces of intolerance. Let's not give ammo to the bigots, most of us reason. (That would explain why Howard University has refused to release transcripts of Cosby's speech.)

This is the wrong response. Refusing to deliberate over issues that are ripping apart our community will only ensure that these important issues remain unresolved. We cannot be so concerned about looking bad to white people that we ignore very serious problems. We cannot pretend, merely for the sake of cultural PR, that these problems do not exist. Good PR is not social change.

Instead of silence, we need to do the hard work of examining these issues. But that's nearly impossible to do when our leaders refuse to speak about them above a whisper. Have we all been so spooked by what white people think of us that we remain silent about our own destruction? If so, I would suggest to our leaders that silence would serve black America poorly.

Our silence is hurtful not only because it prevents us from converging around important topics, but also because it passively suggests that violence and the education gap are uniquely black problems that we have a vested interest in concealing from public view. They are not. Violence is not hard-wired into our DNA. The 50 percent high school dropout rate is not a function of our biology. These are not manifestly black issues. They are issues of personal responsibility, accountability and social conditioning. But by hiding these problems we isolate ourselves from other members of mainstream America whom share this plight. In effect, we turn violence and education into a "black thing." At least one obvious result is that government officials are less responsive to these issues because they're perceived as only affecting a minority of voters.

Sadly, the debate about the racial, economic and educational gap is almost never framed that way. We don't talk about how these are behavioral issues because than we would be forced to discuss our shortcomings. So, instead we tend to rationalize the behavior of street thugs and excuse our failures as the result of racism.

There is an obvious ripple effect. If black youths are told from a young age that they are victims - that victimhood is an inextricable part of being black - that idea will become ingrained in them. They will fail in school, because testing well is something white people do. But if we converge around the ideas of individual striving and personal responsibility, then maybe we can supplant the pressure black children feel to underachieve academically.

This is the challenge Cosby set before us. I pray the rest of the community can follow suit by converging around an open and honest discussion about the deep reasons for our own self-inflected wounds.

It will be a difficult conversation, but one that is sorely needed.