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.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. 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. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

3 responses to “How the myth of individualism is destroying the Black community”

  1. Sen says :

    It’s sort of funny – our (meaning people of any arbitrary community) tendency to try to focus on ONE cause for the marginalization or lack of viability of a group of people. What is the reason for the plight of the black people worldwide? The answer could be anything and everything, seriously – from the food we eat to the TV shows that others watch to the music we listen to to the clothes that others wear. There are so many reasons that even creating a simple poll with 100 choices could not scratch the surface of the surface of our issues.
    For just three black “failures” there could be 300 reasons for why the world views them as such.

    In the end, the reasons “why” are so numerous and vast that they become irrelevant in helping our people. Working to better yourself and the lives of those you touch would seem to be a much better way to spend one’s energy. But I understand – it’s always easier to blame others than to blame oneself.

  2. Edward says :

    I’m quite torn on this issue. In one sense, I believe that “our” monolithic view of ourselves as “the black community” can be a detriment to our development, both individually and collectively. From a “community” perspective, I am not allowed to simply be “me”. I must stand and be much more than I want to be (or maybe more than I am really capable of being.)

    I also understand and strive to bring economic progress for my fine city. (Majority black.) I could live anywhere in this metro area, but I choose to make Detroit a better place to live because I love my sisters and brothers. But, am I their keeper?????

    It is easy to dismiss Cosby and Juan Williams because they their arguments are kind of lazy and myopic, but isn’t there any truth in what they are saying?

    To say that you have “made it” on your own is quite a silly statement to make anyway. The reason why neo conservative thinking has infiltrated the culture is because we (black people) insist on owning the labels they place on all of us. Because you have decided to adopt the falsities laid out by someone else, ie., the media, corporate america, etc., it makes us all think that we have all these things in common, whether that be our own personal successes or failures. The only thing we might have in common is actually the color of our skin.

    What we must make clear to ourselves and to others is that most people choose their “communities”. Merely being placed in a “community” is a false construct. Black people come in all shapes, colors, sizes, intelligence levels, etc. Our grandparents and great grandparents fought and marched so that you could choose your “community” and not have one thrust upon you.

    People fail in every community. Great societies throughout history in fact have always provided a safety net for those failures. There will always be reasons beyond our comprehension why people do not succeed, but we must care for them the same. Every village will have its idiot. If you cannot find him, you are probably it.

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