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Blacks must drop victimhood and reclaim dignity

African Americans can succeed despite the forces of poverty and systemic racism. But first we must shed the mind-set of victimhood.

By Bill Cosby, Alvin F. Poussaint / November 8, 2007



New York and Boston

Martin Luther King had a dream that some day his children would "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

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He wanted his children to become strong, beautiful people. But what we see today in poor African American neighborhoods is a nightmare.

We know there are forces that make the ability to escape poverty seem bleak: overburdened single-parent homes, a high dropout rate, joblessness, gangs, drugs, crime, incarceration, deaths at an early age from guns fired by angry black men. We know that systemic racism and governmental neglect still exist.

Yet we in the black community must look at ourselves and understand our own responsibility. We sometimes inflict ourselves with a victim mentality, feel hopeless, and do self-destructive things that make our lives even worse. Many people who are trying to make it find themselves struggling against fellow African Americans so lost in self-destructive behaviors that they bring down other people as well as themselves.

These forces are decimating our communities. And they are not what Reverend King and other leaders took those whuppings for. This is not the future for which our ancestors escaped slavery or resisted it. None of our forebears sacrificed their lives so that their children's children could call each other "nigger."

Time to overcome

We cannot accept this current state of affairs. We must realize – and believe – that, for all the external hassles we face, we are not helpless. We can overcome the odds and succeed in spite of the obstacles. And we must try. Despite the fact that racial discrimination has not been eliminated, black strength lies in the resolve to keep on keeping on, never quit, never give up, never yield to the role of cooperative victim.

Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to end school segregation, black people have achieved extraordinary accomplishments on all fronts that seemed unthinkable 50 years ago.

As black people face the future, we must remember our successes in American society.

One way slaves survived brutal conditions was to turn the Christianity they had learned into a liberation theology. The stories of the Hebrew slaves became their own. Even as slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery, black people used the Bible as God intended – to give people hope for a time when there would be true justice.

For black people to hold their heads high even today means getting rid of internal feelings of inferiority.

A history of obstacles

This can be difficult given that white supremacists had real clout in this nation for nearly 250 years.

Take, for example, the very definition of a "black" person in America. Historically, a person with any known black ancestry was defined as black, making African ancestry a taint on white purity.

The way race is defined in the United States makes no biological or genetic sense. It's been used primarily as a tool for political and psychological oppression – providing economic gain for many white people.

The Emancipation Proclamation, written in 1863 during the Civil War, finally freed slaves in the South from bondage. After slavery, there was a short-lived period of "Reconstruction" in the South when black people started businesses, bought property, voted, and even served in Congress.

But old habits die hard, especially racist ones. When Northerners wearied of Reconstruction, the old South reared its head and imposed "Jim Crow" segregation.

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