IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Black America debate goes public

For generations, African-Americans have bickered over what’s wrong with black America. But mostly they’ve done it in places other ethnic groups weren’t listening. That's changing.
US television talkshow queen Oprah Winfr
Oprah Winfrey opens a multi-million dollar school for poor South African girls she has funded, in this Jan. 2 photo from Johannesburg, South Africa.Stringer / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Late last year, essayist John Ridley wrote an article for Esquire magazine, using an in-your-face style to rip the black underclass. He went on to describe famous blacks who’ve excelled in recent years — Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell — and argued that the whole group benefited from their work. It’s up to us, he wrote, to emulate their success.

The reader outcry was loud and long.

It quickly became clear that irate readers weren’t much concerned with Ridley’s argument. They were derailed by the fact that a black person had blasted other blacks. In a national magazine. With a mostly white audience. Using the n-word.

Reaction among blacks included “I KNOW you just did NOT trash black men in public” and “Why did Esquire magazine publish this mess?”

And those were not the most strident responses, Ridley said in an interview.

“They were angry and belligerent,” he said. “They didn’t even get into the meat and potatoes of the piece.”

For generations, African-Americans have bickered over what’s wrong with black America. But mostly they’ve done it in places other ethnic groups weren’t listening: around dining room tables; within lecture halls at black universities; from black church pulpits and in the black press.

Until now.

Ridley wrote that blacks need to “send niggers on their way” and stop being victims.

Oprah Winfrey recently told Newsweek magazine that she built a $40 million new school in South Africa instead of in a poor American neighborhood because “kids in inner city schools” are unmotivated — the “need to learn just isn’t there.”

Shattering solidarity
Such voices, while a minority among African-Americans, are increasingly vocal and pointed. They are shattering the unwritten rules of black solidarity: Let’s all work together. And if we can’t, let’s at least keep our fights within the family.

“Black conservatives have had to go to the mainstream and make their arguments there because there is no place in the black community for those arguments to be made — not the black church or anywhere,” said Shelby Steele, an award-winning author and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“Liberalism is exhausted,” he added, but that idea “will only be taken seriously if it’s in the mainstream.”

The conservative tag Steele uses for those who share at least part of his vision is slippery. Some identify as Republicans, but other are independents and Democrats — or eschew politcal labels.

Up by one's own bootstraps
But a common theme is individualism. Each African-American must take responsibility for the future, they say, and stop focusing on racial bias as a barrier. Instead, work harder in school, build businesses and accumulate wealth, power or both.

Rice is a model. In interviews, she shrugs off the stark racial segregation of her childhood, then gets back to work as secretary of state.

Chris Rock was among the first to go on the attack in public.

More than a decade ago, he famously — and angrily — joked in his stand-up act about the difference between black people and those he called the n-word. The latter, he said, boast about taking care of their children and not going to jail. “What do you want?” Rock demanded of them, “a cookie?”

It’s a sentiment others agree with, such as those involved in the push within the African-American community for marriage. Organizers of the fourth annual Black Marriage Day — set for March 25 — lament that nearly seven in 10 black children are born to unmarried parents. Most single parents have less time and money than married ones, they say, and children can suffer.

That third-rail word
Ridley’s Esquire piece, titled “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” started with: “Let me tell you something about niggers, the oppressed minority within our minority. Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can’t catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing it for themselves.”

It quickly made its way around the online world, sparking heated, sometimes anguished debate.

2005 TCA Tour Day 5 - NCTA
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 16: Director John Ridley attends the panel discussion for \"Barbershop\" during the Showtime presentation at the 2005 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 16, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John RidleyFrederick M. Brown / Getty Images North America

Ridley said many were furious that he used a racial epithet in a white publication. “They couldn’t get past the word,” said Ridley, a longtime screenwriter and novelist based in Los Angeles.

Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, said several offended colleagues e-mailed him the article. “If this was in Ebony, it would have been really different, but it’s in Esquire,” Walters said. “That’s not a legitimate part of the African-American dialogue, the intra-group dialogue.”

Bryan Monroe, vice president and editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines, said Ebony was founded “to lift up the black community and to shine an important spotlight on the black community — and some of that is tough love — but we can do it from a point of authenticity. It’s us talking about us. ... It’s an authenticity that the white media often can’t have.”

Betrayal or frankness?
Ebony would not have considered the Ridley piece, he said. “The frame would have been different before we even assigned the piece,” he said.

Ridley and others have a right to freely express their views, Walters said, because the civil rights “struggle has not been to build a wall around the black community. It was to liberate people.

“But the expectation was that, once liberated, they would be sensitive enough to our tradition not to betray us.”

Journalist Juan Williams said he, like Ridley, is often accused of betraying black America because he publicly criticizes other blacks.

“There’s always a concerted effort to undermine anyone who wants to say something different than the orthodox methods of the civil rights movement,” said Williams, a regular commentator for National Public Radio and Fox News. “It’s like hitting a nerve. You didn’t just step on somebody’s toe, you stepped on the nerve center.”

For Cosby, no laughing matter
Long a proponent of education and self-reliance, Bill Cosby provoked similar reactions when he gave black America a tongue-lashing during a May 2004, speech in Washington. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the key anti-segregation ruling from the Supreme Court.

Cosby blasted blacks for chronic problems: imprisonment, dropping out of high school and births out of wedlock. “What the hell good is Brown vs. Board of Education,” he ranted, “if nobody wants it?”

Some in the audience cheered their approval. Some cringed — partly because the national media were recording every word. Since then, Cosby has given dozens of similar speeches around the country.

“There’s always been a norm in the black community that self-criticisms are conducted within the black community,” said Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

“Malcolm X said you don’t wash your dirty laundry in public. A group that feels it’s under attack and oppressed wants to present a united front.”

That norm long united a politically diverse community.

Old attitude gaining ground
Around the turn of the 20th century, urban black Americans often criticized other, typically poor blacks who were moving en masse from the rural South into big, northern cities, said Mary Pattillo, a political scientist at Northwestern University.

*** FILE *** Comedian-actor Chris Rock responds to a question during a panel discussion at UPN's portion of the Television Critics Association's annual press tour Thursday, July 21, 2005, in Beverly Hills, Calif. \"Everybody Hates Chris,\" the CW sitcom inspired by comedian Chris Rock's Brooklyn childhood, has been renewed for the 2007-2008 season. The network's announcement Friday Jan. 19, 2007 was a vote of confidence for the critically acclaimed comedy that has struggled to find an audience on the new network. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)Ric Francis / AP

In a sort of noblesse oblige, the National Urban League even published gentle advice to the newcomers on how to fit in — for instance, don’t spit in the streets.

“Of course, this was not published in Esquire,” she said. “It was in our black newspapers and Ebony and all that.”

Today, that’s changing, Pattillo said. “We are now having our internal discussion publicly.”

Why now?

For starters, many who bemoan the changes say it’s because Cosby, Ridley and others are repeating the views of conservative whites, which helps promote them to a wider audience.

Countering tradition
Many whites celebrate the critics because they blame black failings, not white racism, for blacks’ problems, said Melissa Harris Lacewell, a Princeton University professor of political science.

“The story goes something like this: ‘Wow, that black person — John McWhorter, Armstrong Williams, Shelby Steele — they are really brave and independent thinkers because they’re willing to say something that counters what most of black America would agree with,”’ Lacewell said.

“’They’re willing to counter the traditional civil rights message. They must be so smart.’ Well, I sort of think they’re big suck-up cowards who are willing to beat up on poor and marginalized people.”

There’s also a generational factor. Most political analysts agree that younger black people, especially those in the middle class, are more politically conservative than their counterparts in earlier generations. Maybe they take the gains for granted because they’re too young to have witnessed the gruesome realities of the pre-civil rights era.

For some, the old tactics don't work
The emphasis on individual success, especially becoming wealthy, also could be part of a wider trend: Recent studies have shown that younger Americans of all racial backgrounds as a group are more interested in being well off than they were even a couple of decades ago.

But the most prominent critical black voices are middle-aged.

Bill Cosby
***ADDS DATE AND LOCATION TO CAPTION-- FILE *** Bill Cosby speaks on the campus of University of the District of Columbia, May 16, 2006, in Washington. Cosby settled a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who said the entertainer drugged and sexually assaulted her at his home outside Philadelphia. Terms of the settlement will remain confidential, according to a one-paragraph statement issued Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 by the woman's law firm. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)Lawrence Jackson / AP

They say that the nation’s race relations have greatly improved, and many of today’s racial challenges are more subtle than separate-and-unequal schools. The old tactics, they insist, often don’t fit modern realities and it’s time to reconsider them.

Williams, 52, who last year released “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America — and What We Can Do About It,” thinks post-civil rights black Americans are maturing and gaining the confidence to speak out.

“When many of us were in our 20s and 30s, we were still deferring to the grandeur and accomplishments of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ’60s,” said Williams, whose book was inspired partly by Cosby’s speeches. “Now they’re finding their own voice. There’s a new energy in search of ideas and a willingness to discuss them openly that was previously unseen in black America.”

He added: “I don’t think this conversation would have taken root the way it has two or five years ago.

“Now, people are ready.”