The opinion piece, "Black Racism: Self-Deprecating Attitudes Serve Only to Detriment Blacks." (Editorial, Oct. 6, 1995) represents a sophomoric understanding of social issues not only by Marriah Star, but by the editorial staff that welcomed these misconceptions onto the pages of your publication. I challenge the editorial staff to make more responsible choices about reporting on, and expressing opinions about African-Americans. There are persons who have dedicated their lives to the resolution of nihilism, poverty and racism in American society, and such efforts penned in the Greenhouse Cafe between Social Analysis 10 and General Education 105 make a mockery of their efforts.
The core argument in Star's piece is the assertion that language constitutes objective reality, meaning that self-deprecation has the potential to lead to underdevelopment. He writes: "Why is it that some poor black people, after all the progress that has been made in desegregating our society and exposing racism, have initiated the practice of calling each other "nigger" as a term of endearment?
In responding to his own query, he extends his argument by claiming that the use of the word "nigger" perpetuates a culture of victimization, which explains African-American material disadvantages. Although I agree with Star that the term "nigger" is abhorrent and should be stricken from popular usage on all levels, his argument is controvertible on historical and sociological grounds.
It is insulting to African-Americans to assert that use of the term "nigger" is responsible for underdevelopment. Anyone who has spent real time in the "inner-cities" Star describes in such mystical terms, will attest to the seriousness with which many if not most of the residents comport themselves and contemplate ways to improve their lot. I know for a fact that there exist in these "inner-cities" scores of people who have never referred to themselves as "niggers" and "bitches" and yet they remain poor. What would Star say to these people?
Furthermore, there was a time in American history where mainstream society referred to African-Americans in nothing but deprecating language. Regardless of this fact, the African-American "race" survived slavery, Reconstruction, two World Wars and Jim Crow, all the while contributing to the material, literary and artistic cultures of this nation. The central point being that exposure to, or use of, deprecating language is not a sufficient condition for material or cultural failures.
Star's argument may be critiqued with reference to sociological literature. Several prominent sociologists, building on the work of W.E.B. Dubois, developed the concept of "contextual identity." Because identity is contextual, it is possible for there to exist two levels of language "in-group" and "out-group." The theory holds that members of different groups shift their language accordingly based on context. Therefore, terms like "nigger," "wop" and "J.A.P." may be used comfortably when dealing with members of one's own ethnic group without necessarily constituting belief or objective reality about one's situation.
Think of the language that students use in the dormitories of the Yard and in the final clubs. I am certain that it is quite different from the language employed in seminars and at one's holiday dinners with family and friends. Does this contextual use of language stifle the Harvard undergraduates development, or is Star's social theory only generalizable to the poor?
Star may or may not be aware that his thesis about nihilism destroying the African-American community through negativity, such as hard-core rap, is consistent with a body of literature in social theory (See the work of Professor Cornel West '74). I contend that Star's myopic perspective prevents him from realizing that all groups in American society exhibit nihilistic tendencies. To single out the African-American condition as somehow different and irrational ignores volumes of comparable data on mainstream society.
Are white teenagers who listen to songs like "Detachable Penis" and music by artists like Ozzy Osborne and Courtney Love suffering from the same syndrome as African-American youths? How can Star argue that nihilism or "listening to gangster rap" is the major factor promoting African-American under-development in the face of evidence that demonstrates that a culture just as, if not more perverse, continually produces economic winners. In short, to blame African-American nihilism for under-developed material conditions in the "inner-cities" fails to recognize the relative material success of those who created mainstream nihilistic culture.
The piece becomes particularly problematic when he conflates several different issues pertaining to social policy and African-American development. He begins by arguing that the problem is: "The federal government and the saturation of politically correct terms in our culture have stopped the poorest of the African-American community from growing because dependent blacks think they need a helping hand in every form of life to help overcome...oppression."
He then spirals into an uncertain argument about the "black solidarity movement" stifling diversity in the African-American community. He writes: "There are no individual members of the black community any more, just black people who share a pervasive group mentality that results from the black solidarity movement." In support of this argument, he cites African-American skepticism of Colin Powell's presidential candidacy as the archetypal example.
What is the real problem, Mr. Star, self-deprecation, social policy or group-think?
Moreover, your assertion that "poor" African-Americans suffer from the proliferation of political correctness and multi-culturalism in our society betrays the fact that you have never been around these persons. Anyone involved in community service will tell you that arguments about political correctness and multi-culturalism rarely trickle down to persons concerned with feeding their children, health care, and housing issues. Perhaps you should acquaint your self with the volumes of literature on "at-risk" communities housed in Harvard's Gutman library. Furthermore, how can you argue that African-Americans suffer from self-deprecation in one paragraph and political correctness in another?
The extension of this argument is that African-Americans believe that they can do nothing without government intervention, and that African-Americans fail to attempt self-motivated efforts to better themselves. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of hard-working, self-motivated African-Americans (and Americans of all ethnic backgrounds) who continually lose in our economy for reasons that have nothing to do with self-deprecation or social policies.
For example, a recent study by Columbia University anthropologist Catherine Newman demonstrates that: "At the McDonald's on 125th Street in Harlem [alone], 300 people, most of them black, apply every month for a handful of openings for jobs that pay $4.25 an hour (Jonathan Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, Jun. 6, 95). Newman goes on: "On average, fast-food restaurants in the area have 14 job applicants for every minimum-wage opening.... Most blacks seeking work at Harlem fast-food chains have applied for four or five other jobs." Newman's study suggests to me that "poor blacks" in the "inner-cities" are looking more intensely for jobs than for "a helping hand" from Uncle Sam.
Star's argument about a lack of diversity in the African-American community is counterfactual. Empirically, the African-American community is more diverse than ever before. There is no monolithic African-American politics (perhaps that is the problem). I can recall no other year in our time that has produced three potential African-American Presidential candidates associated with the Republican party.
Perhaps African-Americans are skeptical of Powell because he packages himself as a black man somehow different from the masses of African-Americans with statements like: "I'm now a wealthy person.... I wasn't wealthy when I retired. I mean, I just figured out what the white guys were doing." (Henry Louis Gates, The New Yorker, Sept. 25, 1995). Or statements like: "He ticks off African, English, Irish, and probable Arawak Indian ancestry [when asked to describe his own city]."
Most African-Americans have a "multi-racial" heritage thanks to the history of the slave experience in this country. However, few feel it necessary to announce it when queried about identity. The fact that they are "multiracial," does not relieve them from the baggage of being an African-American. It is obvious that Powell's laundry list of identities serves a political purpose and that is fine, but don't question African-Americans for being skeptical about this tactic.
Perhaps they are skeptical because of his possible affiliation with the same party which used Willie Horton advertisements? Why can't African-Americans be skeptical of Powell, Keyes, Lowry, Clinton or Dole on the principal of group interests? Protestants were skeptical of Kennedy and Jews were skeptical of Jesse Jackson. How are African-Americans different? Why should they be?
In fact, by asserting that African-American approval ratings of Powell should exceed that of whites, Star is arguing in favor of the same sort of group think he condemns throughout his essay. Perhaps Star is a victim of the racism he condemns as much as he is of his own ignorance. --Abin B. Tillery, Jr. Ph.D. Candidate in Government