Friday, March 31, 2006

Blacks need a culture war

Errol Louis:

The 2006 edition of "The State of Black America," published every year by the National Urban League, arrived this week to little fanfare, and has been duly ignored by most mainstream press outlets. The actual news contained in the 250-page parade of charts, tables, essays and factoids amounts to the six words that most people already knew would capture the state of Black America this year: Not so great, could be better.

The Urban League chief Marc Morial and other reporters on the "State of Black America" - including Prof. Ronald Mincy of Columbia University and Tavis Smiley, whose "Covenant With Black America" recently hit The New York Times best-seller list - should consider an alternative to the annual recital of statistics and essays on inequality and other social ills afflicting black folk.

What we need is a culture war.

Specifically, we need aggressive, concerted action by members and institutions of the respectable black middle class to do open combat against the rise of an ancient enemy: a bold, seductive street culture that exalts lawlessness, addiction and anti-family behavior like pimping, sexual promiscuity, ignorance and personal selfishness.

Smiley and civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson tend to gloss over a split that has run through black culture for more than a century: the need to choose between the narcissistic pursuit of short-term pleasure and the plodding but rewarding business of building strong families and communities, where learning is sacred and the needs of the next generation trump the cravings of the moment.

In other words, black Americans need to talk more about culture. We need to fight over it.

My former professor, Orlando Patterson of Harvard, recently weighed in on the topic in The New York Times, scolding black leaders for "the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group's cultural attributes - its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members - and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing."

Patterson, citing the fieldwork of one of his students, found structural inequality aggravated by an implicit acceptance within black communities of a lot of the joblessness, criminality and other negatives that lie behind the statistics.

"What sociologists call the 'cool-pose culture' of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up," Patterson wrote. "For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture."

That mirage of street life tempts countless kids to discard the virtues of education, hard work and personal decency.

More teachers, preachers, politicians, journalists and other black Americans with a pulpit need to enlist in the battle against the self-defeating lure of street culture. That means putting off the usual run of statistics and studies that analyze social inequality in minute detail, and doing upfront combat against The Big Lie pumped out hour after hour by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, radio stations, the recording industry and other purveyors of vulgarity and irresponsibility.

A few leaders, like the Rev. Eugene Rivers in Boston and my colleague Stanley Crouch, have already taken up the fight in earnest. But they can't do it alone.

All we are saying is give war a chance.

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