There is a growing group of misinformed, conservative black public figures that are increasingly demonizing and blaming black youth for systemic issues facing the Black community. Invoking an empty “politics of personal responsibility” rhetoric, these black public figures essentially say: “ I made it, and so can you!” Most recently, CNN news anchor Don Lemon gave five truly profound suggestions to fix the black community: Hike up your pants, finish school, stop using the n-word, take care of your communities, and don’t have children out of wedlock…. And if every black person does this, everything will be fine in the world. Black youth won’t be shot down, poverty won’t pervade the black community, racism will cease to exist, and we will all live in an awesome post-racial society with free lollipops and rainbows that shine throughout the day. Who would have thought?
But Don Lemon is not alone. He has joined a band of conservative black public figures including- but certainly not limited to- Bill Cosby, Allen West, Clarence Thomas, and Romany Malco, who have all released statement blaming black youth and the black poor for the state of Black America. Sadly, the opinions of these few men are representative of a line of thinking pervasive in the black community; a line of thinking that focuses solely on agency, while simultaneously ignoring structural realities. Below is a list of five books that every black shamer or shame sympathizer should read. And while this book is meant for the truly misinformed, like Don Lemon and Bill Cosby, anyone interested should read them. All authors offer provocative, nuanced perspectives on issues facing Black America.
1. Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics by Cathy Cohen
One cannot discuss the shaming of black youth without citing Cohen’s most recent work. In Democracy Remixed, Cohen offers a comprehensive analysis on the political lives of black youth; defining “political” not only as one’s relation to the state, but also in terms of values, norms, and morals. Most relevant is her chapter “’Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It’: Bill Cosby, Don Imus, and Black Moral Panics,” where she discusses moral panic in the black middle class and political motives and consequences of this “black on black shaming.” This is a must-read for those that submit to uncomplicated/lazy “personal responsibility” arguments when discussing black youth and black poor.
2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, offers an eye-opening perspective on the American Justice System that systemically and systematically targets and subsequently disenfranchises black men and women. Alexander submits that the criminal justice systems currently acts in a similar fashion to Jim Crow legislation that actively disenfranchised Southern black just decades ago. This narrative demonstrates the reality and dangers of institutional racism, and highlights the limited opportunities for millions of black men and women controlled by the state.
3. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
Robert’s provocative work is an essential read for conservatives that render Black Reproduction as particularly precarious. In Killing the Black Body, Roberts highlights how black motherhood has been viewed as a form of degeneracy and discusses subsequent enacted policies that worked to regulate black childbearing. Roberts submits that the regulation of black female bodies has been a chief aspect of racial oppression, and she encourages the reader to move beyond traditional, retrogressive definitions of black motherhood and reproduction.
4. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy by William Julius Wilson
Though written in the late 80’s, this candid and revolutionary work has certainly earned its place as an academic classic. Wilson argues that the problems facing the destitute are not rooted solely in racism, but are rather due to a “complex web” of cyclical economic factors. His downplay on the significance of race has been the source of much contention. Nonetheless, his focus on structural conditions that oppress Black citizens are truly profound and provide insight to those who lazily shame poor black youth.
5. Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
Predominantly used to advance anti-colonialist doctrine, Black Skin, White Masks, moves beyond revolutionary ideology and thoroughly analyzes the racialized experiences and emotions of the the black and colonized from an institutional/structural standpoint. Though definitely a narrative on the consequences of colonialism, this book is relevant to any current discourse on race. Fanon documents the struggle of “negritude” as a barrier to social mobility and ultimate assimilation, and truthfully captures the painful sentiment all black and brown people still face: blackness is considered the antithesis of right.
If we want to improve the black community, let’s talk about an end to oppressive policies that target black bodies like Stop & Frisk and Stand Your Ground. Let’s talk about leveling black unemployment rates that are the highest in the county out of any other race. Let’s talk about comprehensive and guaranteed economic rights and an educational system that can adequately prepare ALL students for the workforce-regardless of race or socioeconomic standing. Demonizing black youth based on subpar anecdotal evidence is simply unproductive! So to all the misinformed/uninformed black shamers of the world, I suggest three things: (1) Read the above list of literature and inform yourselves; (2) realize that your own personal privilege and success is not applicable to every other poor black person; and (3) understand that institutional racism is a REALITY, not just an empty word millions of black and brown people often cite.
Agency can only go so far in a structurally unfair system.