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For My Young Black Brothers
What to read instead of the idiocy of White Fragility
Every once in a while, I am invited or encouraged to to join an organization aimed at improving the lives of young black men. I am mostly flattered by the invitation, but I almost never join. So I'll take a moment to talk about this and related matters.
I asked some folks, when my blog was more interactive than it is now, how many men they would trust with the keys to their house, without a second thought. That's the benchmark. Why? Because it really doesn't matter what happens to 'black men'. You can get up on a podium and proclaim that you are sensitive to the pain of the world, but you ain't Jesus, so what are you trying to say? What really matters is what happens to you, your family, your friends, your people. And that all depends on your ability to handle your business. Unfortunately there's a lot of marketing and not a lot of product that goes under the heading of 'organizing to help'. When we look back at black American history, what stands out are the towering individuals, but those institutions that survive are mostly conventional. A church, a college.
I say to young black men that you must come to understand the difference between weak links and strong love. And my experience tells me that many black organizations end up as weak links and not as strong love, the exception being black fraternities and sororities. In my opinion that's because fraternities are organized only secondarily about abstract uplifting principles, but primarily around relationships. Organizational racial uplift fails because such organizations don't scale and they are too abstract to be practical.
There's a couple of caveats before anyone takes it that I am badmouthing black organizations wholesale. The first is that I come from Los Angeles, a big city where people with big mouths try to make big organizations. I haven't seen it work much better than a good church, and well that's already done. In a smaller city, I think there might be a more pressing need and a greater commitment to make strong love out of weak links.
Secondly, the objective progress of black Americans means that on average the organizational ability latent in the black communities is greater than it was when I was a young black man. So the chances of an honest effort ending up okeydoke is smaller today than it was 20, 30 years ago.
All that said, the biggest skeptical brick I have to throw is this. If you are middle class, the chances that you are going to lift poor people into the middle class are slim. Especially in times like this when times are hard and messianic politicians are taxing you back down into the ditch. If you're rich, the chances are better. What I'm saying is that if you've got a 50k job, it's likely that the time you spend trying to get somebody with a 20k job into a 35k job might often come at the expense of you getting a 75k job. So volunteer your time very carefully, because it's the man with the 150k job who has the time to recognize the ways and means of the rich that paves the greater path. And if you don't believe that, then why aren't you moving to Cuba, comrade? But then again, that's just all about money.
What I do believe we all should be involved in no matter what our background, is the principle and practice of advanced civility. What America lacks is a firm sense of practical decorum. The proper way of doing things is in doubt. We haven't completely forgotten our manners, but we've seen them beat down so many times that we think they don't matter any more. And it has practically destroyed our ability to communicate trust and strong love in public. Everybody is putting on a game face. Everybody is self-promoting. The people this hurts the most are those who have not experienced the ways and means of power, because they see the game but they can't tell where the game ends and the realness begins. I think that especially counts for young black men who are not in close proximity to the ways and means of social power in the mainstream. When the mainstream carries power over you and your boss is gaming rather than authentically civil, then you will instinctively reject. You'd be right, but you sacrifice your own promotion. People who come up like that carry the dual consciousness, it destroys confidence in self and society.
Gaming generates many weak links, fans, groupies, hangers on. It doesn't lead to trust.
The author of choice in the ways and means of decorum and civility is Stephen L. Carter. Read him and then read him again. First read his Confessions of an Affirmative Action Baby. I avoided it because I thought I knew exactly what he was going to say. I stereotyped him. It turned out to be a much deeper book than I expected. So then when I read his books Integrity and Civility, I wasn't surprised that they would be so excellent.
Carter is not a man you hear about every day. But he's been out there for years teaching law at Yale. Not many of us are going to get a chance to hang out at Yale University and speak with the man. It is an organization, perhaps of weak links or of strong love, that the overwhelming majority of people will never experience. But we do have the mind of Carter on paper and his lessons to learn. And if you're reading me, you know that reading can be a valuable connection.
So my advice to everyone is the same. Read Carter and know that civil people with integrity are out there, dispersed and often unavailable, trying to express something better than a game face and working with integrity to earn the trust they deserve. That's the civilized world I'm living in, person to person in America, because I don't have time for anything else.
(from the archives - August 2009)