(NNPA)—Attorney General Eric Holder in a few recent speeches at the Roosevelt, N.Y. Memorial Presbyterian Church in Queens, N.Y., and at a town hall meeting at Morehouse College in Atlanta has rehashed the theme of the irresponsible Black male. It seems like something of a campaign by President Barack Obama and his attorney general that sounds so much like the conservative playbook on race we have witnessed for the past 30 years.
I have strongly opposed the tendency to continually degrade Black males in public for several reasons. The first is that those who participate in this are not resolving or clarifying anything, instead, they are participating in the nationalization of a racial stereotype that is derived from slavery—that Black people are slovenly, irresponsible and as such create the conditions in which they live themselves. This has made it easier for those with resources, both public and private, to withhold them deliberately because of the view that Blacks would not benefit even if they were extended to them. It is also a narrative that purposefully neglects White males, who have perpetrated most of the misery Blacks experience and who themselves have issues of irresponsibility.
The second reason I oppose this is that fundamentally the creation of the Black male image is managed by powerful American institutions. They range from the entertainment industry to the prison industry. We witness this repeatedly, such as when Denzel Washington couldn’t win an Emmy for his portrayal of Malcolm X, but he did win for being a corrupt drug-running bad cop.
The hip-hop industry, not controlled by Blacks, produces a product that is dangerous and exotic, that titillates the senses of what it means to be always on the edge of legality and when being “real” means crossing over that line it validates the image. The circus ride of Tiger Woods from his choice of being a “Cablinasian” to theirs of his being a Black man is being managed as we speak, not by Blacks, by stripping him of resources so that he will land, fitting comfortably into the stereotype of the over-sexed Black male that he helped to make.
The prison institution is not a product of the Black male, but his impotence in the face of an economic system that will not provide him with valid options to support himself and his family. For most incarcerated Black males, lack of skills and globalizing jobs has left the drug trade to become legitimate and lucrative in the absence of better options. Public policy that Black males didn’t make contained targeted policing in Black neighborhoods and racist sentencing by the courts that resulted in the fact that 80 percent of the one million Black people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses. This is a powerful connection to the damage done to the Black female who was left alone to raise children as the head of household.
The Obama-Holder message to the Black male is far more complicated than Bill Cosby made it sound. It sounds a bit like, if Black males would just change their mind they could overcome the power of American institutions. Well, for some. But for most, it would take public officials like the president and the attorney general doing their jobs and provide the enforcement of justice and the necessary resources that Blacks could not provide for themselves.
It would also take doing something Obama has refused to do—take specific aim at the problems of those Black people who need government the most. In another place I reviewed many reasons why he feels he could not do that and I understand them well. But that doesn’t remove the urgency for him to do it.
The whole history of civil rights was about recognizing that Black people in America had gotten the short end of the historical stick in the evolution of those things that made this country great and for that we demanded justice and equality. Now, it seems that we will settle for high Black officials treating us with the diffidence of those who have gone before them—with others making excuses for them.
Obama and Holder cannot have it both ways. You can’t be “brothers” when you come to Black audiences and lambaste Black males, and be “president” and “attorney general” by refusing to deliver resources to our community to the degree they are needed. Real “brothers” would do more.
(Ron Walters is professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.)