When discussing racism– you know structural inequality like unequal access to education and housing, the school to prison pipeline, the disproportionate sentencing and fallout of the War on Drugs in the black community and the like– I’m often confronted with a counter argument that I will sum up in two words: “black culture.”
The argument is that there is something in black culture that’s the cause of our community’s woes: too few fathers, “black on black crime”, not enough “good” role models, speaking “Ebonics”, wearing hoodies, laughing on trains, not wearing belts with our pants, the breakup of the black family etc.
The unsaid gist of this argument is that there is something wrong -there is something very much the matter – with black people themselves.
There is something inherent to our “culture” – some undiagnosed pathology- that causes us to be predisposed to violence, that makes us not as smart as other “cultures” or not as willing to work as hard as everyone else. Something that makes us destined for and deserving of the ghetto. The reason why we haven’t pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps yet can be found in our “culture.” In our very skin.
It’s almost as if those who believe in the Christian concept of sin think that when sin was handed out in the Garden of Eden, black people (and only black people) got three extra servings of it.
There’s nothing trailblazing about this argument. It’s the same racist tripe that has been used for centuries to ease the conscience of all those complicit in racism and injustice. There was something about black people that made them destined to be slaves. Their obvious inferiority was in their very skin. Their “culture” was such that black women were naturally “sexual” which meant that attacking them wasn’t rape (the Rolling Stones even wrote a song about it.) It was the innate inferiority of black people, their “black culture”, that confined them to chains (not white supremacy or the exponential growth of capitalism). Even the Bible says that they were cursed and deserving of slavery. And everyone knows that the enslaved were much happier in slavery.
Slavery may have ended but it’s justifications and race “science” live on in the imaginations of Americans everywhere and it pops up in these arguments regarding “black culture.” And, guess what, it’s still garbage.
This argument against “black culture” rests on the premise that it’s the “difference” *read inferiority* of all black people that’s the cause of all the problems. The entire argument looks at symptoms of gross structural inequality (like crime, prison statistics, poor school performance and even patterns of speaking) and identifies the people who are discriminated against as the problem. Much like asking a survivor of rape what she was wearing the night of her attack.
Eureka! Black people are the problem.
If black people are the problem then you never have to question how you personally benefit from the very structure that disadvantages them in every aspect of life (because if black schools are underfunded whose school system reaps the profits from that? If black people are receiving home loans at ridiculous interest rates, who receives the advertised rates?) This alchemy – this turning of the people discriminated against into the source of the discrimination- is what allows the majority of Americans to sleep at night. It allows you to wash your hands of systemic and institutionalized racism and ease your guilty conscience of the continued and well-documented abuses against black people. If gives you an “out” to explain away the videos of Black Death continuously (pathologically) presented for your viewing pleasure.
Because if black people are the problem then black people can fix the problem without any outside work to change the structures around them. Black people can just become something other than what they are. Something that makes cops less likely to shoot them. They can, you know, just be different in some way. They could stop doing “black culture” and just become normal like everyone else. You know, just. stop. being. black.
Except your argument is just deflection. It’s just a way of allowing you to maintain the status quo and not question the systemic and institutional racism that continually discriminates against black people. And black people are not the problem and never have been. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates: there’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix.
So if you want to discuss “black culture” with me, be prepared to discuss the amazing resiliency, creativity, and prolificness of black people. Talk to me about the creation of Jazz, Hip Hop, Rock & Roll, R&B, Rap, Gospel. Tell me how much you love southern cooking. Show me videos of you and your kids awkwardly doing the “Quan” or “Nay Nay” or of your grandma and wedding guests arrhythmically “hitting the dab.” Let’s discuss how Black Liberation Theology introduced you to the actual Jesus of the Bible. Make sure to yell YAAAASS Queen or Slay when you dress up. And don’t forget the excellency that is Black Twitter.
But don’t you dare tell me that black culture is inferior.
I’ll leave you with this Chris Rock interview:
Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
Right. It’s ridiculous.
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people