A Poverty of the Mind

It has been requested that I post my thoughts on “A Poverty of the Mind,” an opinion piece in the NY Times that was put out in response to the story that was the subject of “Is the Black Man in America doomed?” piece. “A Poverty of the Mind” speaks to what the author, Orlando Patterson, sees as what Black men have done/are doing to put themselves in the position that they are in. This position, like any other, has both merits and flaws. We can talk about both here.

Responsibility for one’s self is a basic truth of life. To ignore this responsibility is to completely victimize yourself or put yourself completely at the mercy of another. During different parts of life, there are differing levels of this self-responsibility. Children at birth do not have this responsibility. As they grow and mature, the responsibility is passed onto them, for some at a faster pace than others? At some [arbitrary] point, it all rests on them (where this point is is up for discussion, as I cannot pinpoint it exactly).

The question becomes, how do you measure how well you are doing in your own self-responsibility? I say it depends on your situation and your needs. Part of the answer to this question is in found in the “cultural explanations” that Patterson suggests. He says that “a cultural explanation of black male self-destructiveness addresses not simply the immediate connection between their attitudes and behavior and the undesired outcomes, but explores the origins and changing nature of these attitudes, perhaps over generations, in their brutalized past. It is impossible to understand the predatory sexuality and irresponsible fathering behavior of young black men without going back deep into their collective past.”

This is the truth. This exploration of cultural history will answer a lot of questions about origins of attitudes. However, I don’t think that it will reveal that Black men have a disposition that makes them more vulnerable to lies and images from the media as a result of their culture. I do think, though, that he will find that media assualt on the psyche combined with availability of the mind due to lack of activity (school, work) combined with an affinity towards a certain type of music may result in certain things seeming more attractive, accessible, and attainable: more “cool.” It is the combination that creates this. What I caution people not to do is look at cultural history in a vacuum. Environments and circumstances help to shape culture. Likewise, culture alters environments and circumstances. To examine one without the other is not meaningful, and Patterson says that we have only be looking at the environment and not the culture. Fair enough, but I do not want to see us move to the opposite extreme. Using the two together, we can identify ways to change both culture and environment in ways beneficial to our people. He makes the assertion that it may be easier to change culture. If that is true, then we can make cultural changes while at the same time changing our social, political, and economic environments (more on this below).

There are things that are in my mind unquestionably irresponsible: promiscuity and predatory sex, laziness in regard to challenging yourself and your mind, willful ignorance. I don’t see listening to 50 Cent or aspiring for a career in professional athletics as ignorant or irresponsible in and of itself. The ignorance comes in at the point where the mindset is “This is all I know. This is my only option, my only way out, my only way to survive or succeed.” That ignorance can be combatted by making other options visible. How do we do that? Mentorship. Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship. Personal relationships change everything. Culture, environment, mindset, everything. How can one mentor change an entire neighborhood? Long and short, easy and difficult journeys, all start with one step.

A flaw in Patterson’s approach, however, is demonstrated by the [in or out of context] words of Detroit Mackenzie High School Principal Bernard Bonam who said that the students “didn’t give a doggone thing about their education…”. The danger with this is that it is based on his assumptions on the motivations of certain student behaviors. To Bonam, the student’s culture in anti-education. Well, I’m no anthropologist, but I do know that part of culture has to do with the environment in which that culture exists. As Brandon said, why is he blaming students for the sorry state of Mackenzie? Did their culture force the school to not buy books? NO!!! My challenge to him, conservatives, and to anyone who takes solely this position is this: how many people have you talked to in the group that you are judging about their feelings on their situation? How diverse of a set of people did you reach? This is important because assumptions are dangerous. This is the problem with the whole “I’ve talked to students (or Black people or any ‘group’) and they said this…” line that people try to throw out. They often times have not talked to the people they needed to talk to to gain understanding.

I do agree with the author that many times socioeconomic factors only tell part of the story. However, I do not so readily discount these factors because of this. I see them fitting into a holistic approach to addressing these issues our people face: psychological, economic, and political. I do not agree with the “we have to solve this first before we can talk about that” approach to addressing our predicament. I believe that Black people, the most dynamic people on the planet, can do more than one thing at a time. We can address psychological, economic, social, political, and any other thing we need to solve by working together. Since everyone may or may not be skilled in or passionate about addressing political issues, should the political activists sit on the bench until they are tagged in by those expert in the psychological? NO!!! Solve problems in parallel, not in series. Nothings stops us from addressing broad issues while at the same time addressing personal ones. I can mentor a young man and help him find a job while dealing with my own personal insecurities. I can encourage a young girl to pursue her passion in art while at the same time organizing local town hall meetings on political issues of relevance to people of color. I can be a mentee of a more experienced entrepreneur while mentoring one who is less experienced than I.

Me and Orlando Patterson agree that people need to be responsible for themselves. Beyond that, I believe in collective responsibility for each other. I work towards a world where societal pressures, laws, or policies do not hurt us because of our strength of attitude and confidence. I work towards a world where giving into temptation does not result in plight because the system is able to sustain us and keep us from falling. In that world everyone helps themselves, and everyone helps everyone else. That is what community is to me. Perhaps Mr. Patterson and I can agree on that.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

2 responses to “A Poverty of the Mind”

  1. ellenweber says :

    What a brilliant balance between the inner motivation of the mind and soul and the motivation that comes when we learn to value, respect and enamble one another. Like you I agree that it seems to start with self and the power of One — but I admire the way you brought these today in a way that inspires more from all of us! Thanks for this thoughtful work!

  2. Akoma christian says :

    hi pls explain more on the above topic

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