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.
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."
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.
Buying into victimhood
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."