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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.

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Buying into victimhood

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Although few acknowledge it, the doctrine of white supremacy has sunk deeply into the minds of too many Americans, black people included. It has slithered its way into the psyches of poor black youth with low self-esteem, who equate academic success with "acting white." If success is "white," then are they saying that to "act black" is to fail?

We wonder how these embedded stereotypes affect black people today. Are we too dependent? Do we rely too much on white people or "the system" to rescue us? Do we lack faith in our own ability to run things? Has the legacy of slavery affected even our current mental state?

Too many people, including some black people, believe many poor black youth – particularly males – cannot be educated. This position harkens back to the notion of poor genes determining poor performance rather than poor environment, poor schools, or a music scene that imparts destructive, degrading values. The good must be separated from the bad while treating black people with respect and not demeaning an entire culture.

Victors through community, family

When restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, groceries, and clothing stores were legally segregated, black people opened and ran their own.

Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being. They also gave black people that gratifying sense of an interdependent community with people working to help each other.

During legal segregation, white racists destroyed some of these economically independent communities. To their credit, our ancestors did not accept victimhood. They fought back as individuals and as a people. Most refused to become passive victims of the system.

Black neighborhoods today must adopt that same can-do attitude and take action. They must be enterprising and work hard to improve their own economic situation – and by so doing, help improve the community.

This tenacious drive to be victorious is a quality that will help us meet the current challenges in our neighborhoods.

We can pass this sense of strength on to our children by strengthening black families, whatever their structure, and nurturing our youth with love and guidance. We must put children first and sharpen our parenting skills in both single-parent and two-parent homes. Fathers must play a bigger role. They cannot be absent. Children do better when fathers are actively involved in their lives.

With the help of supportive social policies, we can shoulder the remaining challenges and overcome the barriers to black success.

The driving force for change has been the activism of African Americans and others who take up our cause. The key word is activism, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We must be actively involved in empowering our schools and participating in the political process by exercising our right to vote. Being passive takes us nowhere. Activism is what gets us where we want to go.

It is time to think positively and act positively. A people armed with the will to want to get better, armed with the will to win, and armed with knowledge of the past and present, can move forward and take action, succeed, and reclaim their dignity.

Bill Cosby is a longtime entertainer. Alvin F. Poussaint is the director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston and a professor of psychiatry and the faculty associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School. They recently wrote the book, "Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors."

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