U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is catching flak for saying during Black History Month that on matters of race, the United States is “essentially a nation of cowards” in too many ways. Holder, the first black to head the Justice Department, is absolutely right.
Based on responses to his remarks, most people assume that the “cowards” Holder refers to are white Americans. Most blacks are cheering the attorney general for his forthrightness, and many whites, especially conservatives, are angry and resentful. Still others are just plain surprised by the audacity of the observation after millions of white people voted to elect the nation’s first black president.
I do not have a problem with what Holder said. I do have a problem, however, with what is not being publicly talked about in this controversy: On matters of race, blacks are cowards, too. We may be the worst cowards of all. First, we have perfected the crude art of controlling the terms of race talk. Second, we have developed various ways of avoiding and squashing the truth about our complicity in matters of race that are self-destructive.
I cannot count the times I have participated in or attended events on race that devolved into acrimony and shouting because blacks attacked whites who said “insensitive things,” often meaning that the whites expressed their true feelings and thoughts about blacks.
Seeing themselves as victims of racism, most blacks reject raw race talk from whites. After all, whites are viewed as being the perpetrators of racism. The perpetrator, therefore, should confess, shut up and listen. Because of this dynamic, far too many whites have learned to avoid direct matters of race.
Holder recognizes this problem. During his now-infamous speech, he said: “If we’re going to ever make progress, we’re going to have to have the guts, we have to have the determination, to be honest with each other. It also means we have to be able to accept criticism where that is justified.”
Although black attacks against whites are harsh, our attacks against other blacks that tell the truth are downright vicious. I know from personal experience. You are tar-brushed with the stain of Uncle Tomism, and it sticks to you forever.
You are ostracized and given the silent treatment. Your mistake is not that you told the truth but that you told the truth in public, thereby giving the enemy valuable ammunition. (Here, think of comedian Bill Cosby, who is castigated for saying that too many low-income blacks have not held up their end of the nation’s civil rights gains.) In short, you committed the unforgivable sin of “airing dirty laundry.” Your achievements and good deeds are never recognized. You simply do not exist, unless you put yourself in people’s faces to have your say.
On matters of race, most blacks run away from introspection, and we do not like to hear others publicly remind us of our responsibilities to ourselves. One problem we should openly talk about, but run from, is the high number of black children born out of wedlock. Depending on whose numbers we use, between 70 and 80 percent of black children are born to single mothers.
Some black neighborhoods do not have any two-parent families. I know dozens of black kids who do not know who their biological fathers are, and most of their friends are in the same fix. We need to remind ourselves, which we rarely do, that having a child is a choice we make.
Out-of-wedlock births may not be a problem unto themselves, but evidence shows that this factor alone can initiate a chain of self-destruction. The overwhelming majority of black children growing up without fathers are poor, and the chances of large numbers of them escaping poverty are remote.
Studies show that they are less likely to perform well in school, making them a major part of the achievement gap, suspensions and expulsions — flash points for whites with hostility toward blacks. Graduation among these students is low, and few of them attend college, factors that eventually lead to high unemployment and underemployment.
We also run away from discussing crime, especially horrific cases of black-on-black crime that capture headlines and lead nightly news reports. We try to rationalize the high numbers of blacks in prison by blaming everyone except ourselves. Many whites, especially racists, use these phenomena to bash us. We leave ourselves open as targets for such attacks by refusing to confront crime honestly and openly.
To mention the deleterious effects of hip-hop is to be attacked. The ugly truth is that this outlaw culture, with its anti-intellectualism, anti-authoritarianism and nihilism, will do more harm than virtually anything else to a generation of blacks. Fearing attack, too many blacks remain silent on this issue, and when whites bring it up, they are shouted down as racists.
Holder should make a second speech on race, this time specifically taking blacks to task for keeping silent on the abandonment of their personal responsibilities.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.