Columns

Asker ’17: Don’t blame black culture

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One night late in August, my brother and I were flipping through the channels on TV — an activity that speaks to how contentedly bored we were, too lazy to even turn on Netflix. We flipped to Fox News to see Bill O’Reilly lecturing about the insolence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how it was wrong. Intrigued, we continued watching. The segment of the show glorified an emotional video from Peggy Hubbard, a black grandmother from a St. Louis suburb, that went viral in August. In the video, Hubbard rails against black people generally for not condemning the black-on-black violence endemic to her city and instead focusing their attention on police brutality. In particular, she complains that people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than condemning the recent killing of a nine-year-old black girl by an as-yet uncaught black male, have instead protested against the police over the killing of a man whom officers said pulled a gun on them. The New York Times reported on his death on August 21: “an 18-year-old St. Louis man whom the police said they shot after he pointed a gun at officers died from a bullet that entered the middle of his back.”

Hubbard indignantly demands that people stop defending the 18-year-old and victims of police brutality generally. Rather than pointing fingers at police, she exhorts people to condemn the black-on-black violence that she says is all too common.  She says, “Police brutality? How about black brutality? You black people, my black people, you are the [expletive] most violent [expletives] I have ever seen in my life.”

I think the most obvious point to make here is that it’s not mutually exclusive to oppose both police brutality and civilian murderers. You can do both at the same time. In the particular case of the 18-year-old, sure, it’s possible he was an actual law-breaker whom police were justified in killing because he actually posed an imminent danger to society. Frankly, I don’t like drawing conclusions about the state of the relationship between the police and black people from individual instances, especially when the facts are murky. But over the past year and a half, undeniable evidence has come to light of systemic, unjustified police brutality and discrimination across this country. When the state is systematically violating the rights of a group of people, reform is clearly needed, and lawful protest to achieve that reform should not be met with scorn.

But there’s something more interesting about Hubbard’s video: It makes plain a flawed conservative assumption about the disproportionate violence against black people present in many communities today. It was a convenient video for Fox News — so convenient I seriously wonder whether the video was actually viral, which they claimed when they aired it, before they got ahold of it. O’Reilly used it to simultaneously dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole and to perpetuate the notion that the problems black people face are self-inflicted. Megyn Kelly, a Fox News anchor, sums up her station’s view on the matter quite explicitly in an interview with Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson: “We have been talking for months on this show about how some believe too few in the black community have turned and said ‘Stop, don’t act as victims, and don’t look squarely at the police, and start looking inward.’”

The underlying premise of the conservative logic above is the existence of a “black culture” in which sordid, non-family values spontaneously grow from within the community itself, with no exogenous stimuli — values that induce black people to criminal acts. In other words, “their” culture is the ultimate cause of the violence black people face on a day-to-day basis, and as such we need to blame it — and it alone — and act to root it out. Then the problem will be solved.

The problem with this assumption is best explained by Cornel West in an interview with Megyn Kelly regarding Peggy Hubbard’s tirade. “When you socially neglect a people, when you economically abandon people, when you transfer wealth from them to the well-to-do, generation after generation, how will they respond? They’re gonna respond with unbelievable levels of very sad forms of despair. This is true for anybody; I don’t care what color you are,” West says, mentioning people in Appalachia, indigenous people, Irish people and Greek people. “It’s true all around the world. … It’s a human thing when you abandon folk.”

That’s of course not to say that people should stop trying their hardest to be good people. And it’s not to take away from the hard work of some who against many unfortunate circumstances heroically manage to be good people, nor is it to give an excuse to those who commit crimes. People who work hard and follow basic civil norms — norms necessary for us to live together in society, e.g.“don’t kill others” — should be applauded. Individuals who choose to violate basic societal norms should be ostracized and punished because they pose a threat to society. Determining culpability in any other way would be unsustainable.

But we need to realize that there are outside factors that explain why categories of people transgress more than others. Unfortunate circumstances unique to certain groups of people can sometimes eclipse even the most well-intentioned, most hard-working, most well-raised individual. All successful individuals are lucky in the sense that the circumstances around them weren’t so horrible that they outweighed their good qualities and the positive influences in their lives. Because of the nature of racial discrimination, many black people have a shared experience of oppressive circumstances that surely have the power to overwhelm in the sense described above. History and current lived realities attest to this point, including but not limited to slavery, Jim Crow (see Brown’s first-year student reading, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”), redlining, racist drug policies, racial profiling by police, unconscious biases in hiring practices and the disenfranchisement that comes from voter ID laws. The way to prevent the natural consequences of what the West refers to as neglect — including objectively criminal activity and human suffering — is to eliminate racist policies and discriminatory tendencies to the best of our ability. Resolution won’t come from demanding people succeed in the face of herculean obstacles or that they vigorously preach good morality. Talk all you want, but harsh realities will always overpower when it comes to determining people’s behavior.

The good thing about Fox News manufacturing this story by bringing an otherwise peripheral video to the forefront is that it generated conversation, along with a robust refutation from people who understand how a person’s environment, shaped by current and historical social structures, shapes him or her. The bad news is that the people at Fox News don’t recognize this refutation as valid because they’re too caught up in their moralizing, which allows them to feel better about themselves rather than face the hard truth about a modern America they often see as reproachable. Potentially fruitful dialogue ends because of obstinate cowardice, with many afraid of embracing what will disenchant them of their self-importance.

Nicholas Asker ’17 can be reached at Nicholas_Asker@Brown.edu

  • pig

    “When the state is systematically violating the rights of a group of people, reform is clearly needed, and lawful protest to achieve that reform should not be met with scorn”

    my goodness so brave what a truth teller thank you, Friend of the Black People

  • Arafat

    Confirmation bias in action. Asians came to America with nothing yet today their success is remarkable. Asians look different than white people yet they were able to “overcome”.

    Jews have suffered from prejudice for a good part of the last 3,000 years and yet that has not stopped them from unrivaled accomplishments.

    Seems to me the 800 pound gorilla in the room is that of values and cultural influences. But to write that would be not politically correct even if it smacks of truth, so let’s pretend I didn’t just write the obvious.

    • Greek Alum

      Asians weren’t imported by the overfilled busload with literally no rights and systematically oppressed but same difference I guess.

      • Arafat

        Blacks were jammed into cargo holds and Jews were jammed into freight cars. Jews didn’t sit around and stew in their own juices but grasped opportunities and rebuilt their families and their lives. Blacks did not, they created an endless number of single-mother families and blamed others for their plight.
        Is this not cultural at some level? Or is even the mere suggestion that this is the case forbidden in today’s PC climate?

        • Greek Alum

          No, you can suggest it, I just think you’re wrong. You can point to drug arrests being more common for blacks, but drug use isn’t. You can show that when people judge identical resumes, they assume the white name is more qualified than the black name, when people evaluate identical written documents, they think the one authored by the black person has more mistakes than the one authored by a white person. Please tell me how this is the fault of single parent households.

          Again, you’re talking about Jews being jammed into freight cars (in another country, not the US) for <10 years as though it's equivalent to the African slave trade into the US for ~200 years. Then, as you acknowledge, Jews look white, so they don't have to worry about the above.

          • Arafat

            Greek Alum,
            Fair enough and good response. But is it not also true that under affirmative action the opposite is true? By asking this question I am not suggesting your points are not true for they are.
            Also, Jews were precluded from living in many areas in America (not to the same extent as blacks) and were precluded from many clubs and many jobs as well. That said, Jews were not treated as badly as blacks. Yet, and despite this, how do you explain Jews amazing accomplishments versus the paucity of those of blacks despite there being far more blacks in America. Is this not cultural? Just as with eastern Asians also accomplishing as much as they have for themselves and their families. It is rare to hear of east Asians abandoning their families. Quite the opposite.