Es­cape poverty first, then wal­low in iden­tity angst

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Thomas Sow­ell

Some­times you don’t know when you are lucky. Cer­tainly I did not con­sider my­self lucky when I left home at age 17 and dis­cov­ered the hard way that there was no great de­mand for a black teenage dropout with no ex­pe­ri­ence and no skill.

In ret­ro­spect, how­ever, those days of strug­gling to earn money to pay the room rent and buy food left lit­tle time or en­ergy for navel­gaz­ing over things like “iden­tity.”

All this came back to me re­cently when I saw a Page One story about mid­dle-class blacks wor­ry­ing about their racial iden­tity. There, on Page One of the Wall Street Jour­nal, was a pic­ture of a black teenager whose mother was fix­ing his bow tie as he was get­ting dressed in a tuxedo, in prepa­ra­tion for a cotil­lion. I never had the prob­lem of wear­ing a tuxedo to a cotil­lion, so it was hard for me to em­pathize with their angst.

When I was that kid’s age, I had real prob­lems that taught me real lessons to re­mem­ber when times got bet­ter, not navel­gaz­ing prob­lems that can dis­tract you from re­al­ity for a life­time.

Ap­par­ently there are mid­dle-class blacks who spend a lot of time and en­ergy wor­ry­ing about los­ing their roots and los­ing touch with their black broth­ers back in the ‘hood.

In one sense, it is good there are peo­ple who think about oth­ers less for­tu­nate than them­selves. That’s fine. But, like most good things, it can be car­ried to the point where it is both ridicu­lous and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for all con­cerned.

In a world where an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity of black chil­dren are born and raised in fa­ther­less homes, where most black kids never fin­ish high school and where the mur­der rate among blacks is sev­eral times the na­tional av­er­age, surely there must be more ur­gent pri­or­i­ties than pre­serv­ing a life­style and an iden­tity.

Dur­ing decades of re­search­ing racial and eth­nic groups in coun­tries around the world — with spe­cial at­ten­tion to those who be­gan in poverty and then rose to pros­per­ity — I have yet to find one so pre­oc­cu­pied with trib­al­is­tic iden­tity as to want to main­tain sol­i­dar­ity with all mem­bers of their group, re­gard­less of what they do or how they do it.

Any group that rises has to have norms, and that means re­pu­di­at­ing those who vi­o­late those norms, if you are se­ri­ous. Blind trib­al­ism means let­ting the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor de­ter­mine the norms and the fate of the whole group.

There was a time when most blacks, like most of the Ir­ish or the Jews, un­der­stood this com­mon sense. But that was be­fore the ro- man­ti­ciz­ing of iden­tity took over, beginning in the 1960s.

Back in 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica, the Catholic Church took on the task of chang­ing the be­hav­ior of the poverty-stricken Ir­ish im­mi­grants, to pre­pare them to rise in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. As this trans­for­ma­tion suc­ceeded, em­ploy­ers’ signs that said “No Ir­ish Need Ap­ply” be­gan to dis­ap­pear in the 20th cen­tury.

The Jewish com­mu­nity like­wise made many ef­forts to change the be­hav­ior of im­mi­grants from East­ern Europe, to en­able them to bet­ter fit into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety — and to rise in that so­ci­ety.

The Ur­ban League and other black uplift groups made sim­i­lar ef­forts to pre­pare their fel­low blacks to rise in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. In fact, those ef­forts be­gan to pay off in dra­matic re­duc­tions in poverty among blacks, even be­fore the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

The unan­swered ques­tion is why an ap­proach with a proven track record, not only in Ameri- can so­ci­ety but in var­i­ous other coun­tries around the world, has been su­per­seded by a phi­los­o­phy of tribal iden­tity over­rid­ing is­sues of be­hav­ior and per­for­mance.

Part of the prob­lem is the “mul­ti­cul­tural” ide­ol­ogy that says all cul­tures are equally valid. It is hard even to know what that means, much less take it se­ri­ously as a guide to liv­ing in the real world.

Will time and en­ergy spent on rap mu­sic and wear­ing low-rid­ing baggy pants like guys in prison — as badges of iden­tity — pro­vide as good a fu­ture for young peo­ple as learn­ing math, com­put­ers and the English lan­guage?

Ro­man­tic self-in­dul­gence and self-de­cep­tion are things that some peo­ple can af­ford when they reach the point where they can af­ford iden­tity angst. But mil­lions of other peo­ple will re­main mired in poverty if they be­lieve such no­tions.

Thomas Sow­ell is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.