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Opinion

Could Obama's rise signal the end of black victimology?

If so, it's not good for Jesse Jackson, but it's great for America.

By Lawrence E. Harrison / August 6, 2008



Vineyard Haven, Mass.

There is a moment in the first movement of Beethoven's great Third Symphony, the "Eroica," when a French horn enters on a jarring off-key note. The public gasped when it premièred, but that "wrong horn entry" turned the page from the Classical music era to the Romantic era.

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The public heard another wrong horn entry last month when Jesse Jackson's crude complaint about Barack Obama "talking down to black people" was caught by a live mic. The dissonance represented not the innovative tones of the vanguard but the bitter notes of a depleted and increasingly irrelevant old guard.

Mr. Jackson's vulgarity has been widely characterized as symbolic of a generational conflict among African-Americans. It's that, but also a lot more. It may well mark the end of the dominant, decades-old theme of "victimology" in African-American discourse that has been Jackson's – and several other leaders' – stock in trade.

Victimology, in the view of black writer John McWhorter, is the theory that (1) African-Americans are continuing victims of racism and discrimination, and (2) their progress consequently depends chiefly on acts of repentant benevolence by whites – in the extreme case, reparations for slavery.

Jesse Jackson is the best-known victimologist, but far from the only one. They all must experience acute ambivalence as they view Senator Obama: On the one hand, satisfaction and pride that an African-American may well be elected president this November; on the other, what his success tells us about racism – the root of their victimhood – in the United States.

What that success says is that, while they may have had a just cause a few decades ago, today they are dead wrong. Not only dead wrong but also perpetuating a myth that nurtures dependency thinking on the part of many African-Americans: "We can't make it on our own because the system is stacked against us."

As someone who has been involved in Latin American development issues for almost half a century, "dependency thinking" strikes a resonant – and highly negative – note for me. During the 1970s and 1980s, "Dependency theory" was the dominant explanation in Latin American and US universities for Latin America's economic, political, and social backwardness. Dependency theory argued that the world economic system, dominated by the United States, enriched the affluent countries at the expense of the poor countries.

MIT political scientist Lucian Pye described dependency theory as "demeaning and despairing," since it implied impotence on the part of the dependent. The only way out for the "exploited" was through acts of benevolence by the "exploiters" – the equivalent of "reparations" in the African-American context.

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