How the myth of individualism is destroying the Black community
Cross-posted at the Brave New Films Blog.
A majority of black Americans blame individual failings — not racial prejudice — for the lack of economic progress by lower-income African Americans, according to a survey released Tuesday — a significant change in attitudes from the early 1990s.
This sentence lead off an LA Times piece on class division in the Black community today. These results are not unique to Black people in this country, but they represent a dangerous trend of ignorance, selfishness, and a lack of empathy that does not paint a bright picture of the future. According to this, the "it takes a village…" proverb must be nearing obselescence.
What exactly is an idividual?
Stupid question: what makes an individual an individual? In this context, the prevailing assumption is that an individual is one who makes it "on their own" with "no help" or "little support." Take the entrepreneur that "pulled herself up by her own bootstraps." She's an individual, right? Nobody gave her anything, right? She got no hand-outs; she took full advantage of what was available to her. The funny part about that is, she didn't create what was available to her, it was provided for her by someone/something else. That's not very individual, is it? I'm sure she takes advantage of roads and freeways maintained by the city/county/state/federal government to transport herself, her products, and her services. I'm sure she takes advantage of the public (read: government-supplied/supported) primary, secondary, vocational, and advanced educational system to keep pumping out talented employees and smart consumers. If she was such an individual, she would have built her own damn freeway and school system.
This example is not a Black or white one; it's just a fact-based one. [Neo-]conservatives have successfully caused this thinking to infiltrate many communities and classes, and it's detrimental to everyone for a simple reason.
The conservative frame of the individual is a fallacy.
It concerns me to see many of my Black brothers and sisters accepting this idea, encouraged by repeated rants courtesy of Bill Cosby and Juan Williams. Understanding that there are more ingredients in the recipe than you the individual is not a forfeiture of responsibility. In fact, it is the broadening of responsibility beyond the one to the many. Unselfish responsibility is the only kind that matters.
Black folks in this country, and people of African descent around the world have never seen sustainable success or advancement when operating as a disparate band of individuals. It was called the Civil Rights Movement, not one guy's fight for rights. The liberation of countries in Africa were the results of collective resistance and action, not a single person doing everything on their own. Sure, movements have spokespersons, but a spokesperson represents multitudes, not their own individual opinion.
It's a bad sign if my peers think that they're better off on their own. That's a sign of quitting, of giving up, of turning your back on yourself and others.
This is not a zero-sum game of either it's all the individual's fault or it's all "the man's" fault. Both need to be addressed, and need to be addressed simultaneously. If you have a bunch of highly talented Black individuals with solid personal foundations competing in a fundamentally racist system, progress will cap out very quickly for all but a few. Similarly, if you have a discrimination-free system that is equally accessible to highly ignorant and irresponsible people, they will not make any inroads in that system. What we need is both. Treating this as a situation where you either "help yourself" or "get not help" is the only sure-fire way for Black people in this country to decline into a non-recoverable state of inactive irrelevance.
We don't need individuals; we need institutions to support individuals. We don't need special cases; we need scaffolds for individuals to be their best selves. Society should provide a floor through which no one can fall, therefore giving them the confidence and piece of mind to jump as high as they can.