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This Juneteenth

By Lydia Holt 

You can’t talk about Juneteenth without first talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was primarily looking to “stick it” to the South by signing this document. It proclaimed all slaves in the rebelling states free. Read more...

Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Government's Response

By Sheryl Wright

Bradley Manning, the army private accused of releasing government documents to WikiLeaks, is facing 22 additional charges, including "aiding the enemy...through indirect means.” I agree with those quoted in the article who believe that this particular charge is setting up a dangerous precedent.

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Roundtable: America—Sweden’s Sweatshop

Sheryl: In a bit of irony, the U.S. is developing an unexpected reputation within the corporate world. Recent stories about an Ikea plant in Virginia indicate the United States—much like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Honduras—is now seen as a preferred destination for corporations in search of lower production costs. Read more...

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Entries in President Obama (1)

Saturday
Jun012013

Does “Personal Responsibility” Have to Be a Dirty Phrase

By Lucinda Holt 

A couple of weeks ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic and Aura Bogado in The Nation took the first couple to task for “stressing individual responsibility” and trotting out old stereotypes during graduation speeches they gave at Morehouse College and Bowie State University, both historically black institutions. Maybe the president and first lady did trot out some old stereotypes, but why is stressing individual responsibility a bad thing?

 

President Obama speaks at Morehouse College graduation. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Call me old-fashioned, but there is a place—a very important place I would argue—for encouraging young people to be responsible and work hard. I know I run the risk of sounding like some rabid social conservative frothing at the mouth about big government, “entitlements” and the need for “personal responsibility.” But progressives should reclaim “personal responsibility.” The phrase doesn't have to be a euphemism for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps even though someone's got his foot on your neck. And most importantly, personal responsibility doesn't have to be the excuse for not creating policy that supports the least among us.

Coates and Bogado made some great points about how American policies have created the conditions that the first couple are asking young, black people to work hard in spite of. Bogado was quite eloquent in challenging the first couple's emphasis on personal responsibility:

“[President Obama] could have added that even earned rewards can quickly evaporate once race mediates the situation. Like his partner, the president stressed individual responsibility—dangerous and impractical guidance at a time when an undying system of white supremacy continues to dictate not only access to wealth and education, but also continues to determine matters of life and death.”

Stressing individual responsibility is dangerous and impractical? Is it really? I suppose it is if the assumption is that taking personal responsibility precludes creating policy that supports people. Yes, it's ironic that the guy who has made cuts to Pell Grants is telling young people to work harder. I get it.

But in spite of that irony, I see value in both the first couple's calls for personal responsibility and their critics' calls for meaningful policy change. Why do we have to assume that black people either need good policy OR empowerment through personal responsibility? Why can't there be both? Should our discourse about education and the future success of young people and our nation only be about policy or only about personal responsibility? Why must it be an either/or proposition? We need good policies that support those who are struggling, but why does “personal responsibility” have to be a dirty phrase?

A Long Tradition of Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility could be used, not to blame, but to actually empower people, which it seems is what the Obamas were after in their speeches. Black people have a long tradition of empowerment through personal responsibility. It's this tradition of personal responsibility and hard work that had and continues to have us work to create a just and more equitable country that lives up to its promise. When I use the phrase “personal responsibility,” I'm talking about the insistence that black people be inspired and empowered by their hard work and their capacity to create change—in spite of racism and in spite of policies that limit their access to things like quality education. This message of personal responsibility is one that the likes of Booker T. Washington and thousands of black parents and grandparents, like my very own Esther J. Moore, pushed and pushed.

I am grateful for good policies. The policies that desegregated schools when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s and ensured that I had an excellent public magnet school to attend paved the way for me. The federal grants that helped pay for college made higher education a reality for me. But I wouldn't have been able to take full advantage of any of this if someone at home didn't value education and encourage me to work hard and take responsibility for doing my very best. But what happened when policies didn't result in change on the ground?

When I started sixth grade, I was supposed to be in a magnet school in the old dilapidated middle school in our district. While a strong magnet program had been created for the new seventh and eighth grade school a few blocks away, there was nothing at the sixth grade level. After the first week of school, I complained to my mother that there was no magnet program as we had been told there would be, and we weren't learning anything and were just being corralled from one class to another. I was panicked that I would fall way behind if my sixth-grade year was lost to sitting in a room with kids chatting and throwing spit balls at one another.


My mother wrote a letter to get on the agenda at the next school board meeting. At seventh months pregnant, she spoke passionately at the meeting about implementing existing policy and not letting children in our neighborhood down. There were white people on the board who claimed that we didn't need the program in our school because children didn't test well enough to merit it. This was a lie, because I had consistently scored exceptionally well on standardized tests and knew that we deserved to have classes that challenged us. Six weeks after my mother spoke at the school board meeting, we had a magnet class at our school. People like my mother pushed for policies that already existed to actually be implemented. My mother had to take responsibility; she had to feel like she had the power to respond to a situation that was not ideal.

And this is what I thought of when I read what First Lady Michelle Obama said during her recent speech at Bowie State University about fixing our schools:

“If the school in your neighborhood isn't any good, don't just accept it. Get in there, fix it. Talk to the parents. Talk to the teachers. Get business and community leaders involved as well, because we all have a stake in building schools worthy of our children's promise.”  

Policy isn't a magic bullet that fixes everything. Policy is just the beginning. We need to feel empowered to push for good policies and ensure that those policies are implemented. And young people need to work hard to take full advantage of the opportunities good policy provides.

The Aspirations of Black Children

Ta-Nehisi Coates took issue with not only the first lady's emphasis on personal responsibility, but also her critique of black children's aspirations:

“Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

I understand how someone like Coates, who came to writing through hip-hop, might take offense to these words. In his piece, Coates defended the artistry of hip-hop, the opportunity hip-hop offers many young people and the right of young people to dream of being whatever their heart desires—even a basketball player. But even Coates had to acknowledge that too many young black people limit their aspirations to sports and entertainment:

“What is specific to black kids is that their dreams often don't extend past entertainment and athletics. That is a direct result of the kind of limited cultural exposure you find in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are the direct result of American policy.”

Coates makes an excellent point. And instead of taking offense at First Lady Obama's words, I would rather see a shift in the careers we value as a culture and a call for educational and economic policies that expose young people to a wide array of career opportunities and give them the skills and means to actually pursue those careers. I would love to see more young black children aspiring to be the next Alexa Canady or Neil Tyson deGrasse. Why can't young black children dream of being hip-hop artists, basketball players, neurosurgeons and astrophysicists?

Empowered by Personal Responsibility

In calling for young people to work hard and for people to take action to ensure our schools are as great as they can be, the first couple were not pretending that racism and other limitations don't exist. In fact, President Obama acknowledged these limitations:

“We've got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there.”

In spite of slavery, Jim Crow and persistent racism, the president doesn't want to hear any excuses about why young, black people can't succeed academically. I understand why Coates and Bogado bristled at the president's words about young people not making excuses and First Lady Obama saying that “too many of our young people just can't be bothered,” which sounds a lot like writing “too many of our young people” off for being lazy.

 

But consider this: If racism and socioeconomic disadvantages aren't going any where, should young, black people just wait for the right policies to magically make it all better? No. Could the president do more policy-wise to ensure that young black people have access to quality education and gainful employment? Yes. But policies aren't the only things that will create the conditions to have young, black people succeed. There is a place for and long history of encouraging young people to have “grit” that resilient, persistent, tenacious quality that Angela Lee Duckworth argues has young people succeed in spite of racism, socioeconomic disadvantage and everything else that conspires to hold some young people down. Personal responsibility and good policy work well together. They are part of the recipe that has had the Obamas and dare I say Coates and Bogado be successful in their respective endeavors.