"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Black Illiteracy Today–Another Legacy of Slavery?

Colbert King has written about illiteracy in the District of Columbia (Washington Post, 3.9.13) and noted that nearly twenty percent of its adult residents cannot read.  He goes on to refer to American Southern antebellum history when slaves were not only denied the right to read and write but were severely punished if they were found doing so.  The situation today, King goes on, is not much different:

Now, 150 years after the Civil War, our nation’s capital, home to a significant number of African Americans, has too many residents who cannot read the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the works of Frederick Douglass or the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King. Those residents are exactly where slave-masters would have wanted them to be.

While King does not suggest that there is any plantation-style white supremacy going on in Washington; or that the good burghers of Ward 3 put on white sheets and cone-head miters and march across the Anacostia with crosses burning; but there is more than just a whiff of white blame in his article.  At the very least, by just drawing the parallel to slavery King suggests black powerlessness, a neutered ability to rise up and revolt.

At the same time few people totally dismiss the persistent legacy of slavery and the pernicious influence it continues to have on the black community.  For example, it is not a coincidence that inner-city neighborhoods are characterized by wayward men and fatherless children. Not only were some families broken up during slavery to punish rebellious male slaves, but plantation owners did nothing to discourage reproduction among their slaves.  In fact, they made a good living from the slave trade, and even Thomas Jefferson, a good businessman, understood that as his Virginia tobacco lands petered out and he had a surplus of slaves, he could make a tidy profit from selling them to cotton plantations farther south.

In other words, plantation owners were not at all concerned whether or not slave children were born in or out of wedlock so long as they were born.  All that mattered was that slave women continued to be fertile and multiply.  In fact, records from plantations in the South show that owners were very careful to protect their investment, for slaves were both capital and labor.  Male slaves were given enough food to keep them laboring productively in the field and sufficient medical care to see that they did not lie idle for too long.  Female slaves were taken care of well enough to assure many full-term pregnancies and live births.

Following King’s bent, one could suggest that the deliberate plantation policy of slave illiteracy is responsible for black ghetto illiteracy today and the persistently poor performance of black students in school.  King himself points out that forty percent of D.C. students never graduate from high school.  A review of ACT test scores shows Washington’s school performance among the worst in the nation. 

Plantation owners also did their best to keep slaves from becoming evangelized and attending church.  The Bible, said fundamentalist preachers, was the literal Word of God, and that all must read it to be in His presence.  Once the interdiction against church-going was lifted thanks to church pressure, slaves flocked to Sunday services with a vengeance.  The Pentecostal, fundamentalist indoctrination that slaves and their freed descendants received was certainly another reason for poor black educational performance.  This heavy dose of religious illogic must have thwarted any incipient rational, disciplined thought. Slavery is once again the culprit.

One can also attribute the high crime and drug rates in black inner cities to slavery, for under a perverse system, stealing was moral.  One of the challenges facing Poland after the fall of Communism was to retrain young people into the new world of a capitalism ruled by contract, law, and procedure.  Stealing and cheating under the brutal, corrosive, and corrupt Communist system were courageous and highly moral acts; but under capitalism they were punishable offenses.  Slaves stole from plantation owners because they were underfed, so the attributive argument goes, and their acts were not derelict but heroic.  They had to feed their children. Alcohol was one of the few pleasures slaves had to alleviate the suffering of the brutal system within which they labored; and it is no surprise – again according to the attributive argument – that drugs are prevalent in inner cities where blacks live enslaved by an oppressive majority society. Slavery once more is the culprit.

While there is a scintilla of truth to all this, most of it of course is nonsense.  The reason why illiteracy, poor academic performance, broken homes, and social dysfunction persist in the inner-city is because of a culture of entitlement, irresponsibility on the part of black community leaders,a refusal to lay blame where it belongs, a revolving door of street-prison-street which fuels anti-social behavior, and the flight of able, motivated, and socially responsible residents who flee their old neighborhoods but leave behind a smaller and irredeemably dysfunctional community. 

The liberal white establishment has tried for decades to improve the situation in inner-city communities.  I have lived in D.C. for over 35 years and have watched the situation deteriorate rather than improve despite hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money invested in social programs, special education, and welfare benefits. These liberals are not trying to enslave like their 19th century Southern ancestors.  They are trying to liberate; but no amount of external assistance, no matter how well-meaning, can do the trick.  Change must come from within.  Black preachers must thump the Bible and talk of individual responsibility, adherence to American majority norms – the hard work, honesty, parsimony, respect, diligence, justice, and integrity that have been hallmarks of every civilization since Ancient Greece. White reformers must pull the plug on entitlements and force an internal problem-solving ethos. Black politicians must resist the tendency to pander, as Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry did, to their poor and disadvantaged constituents by opening the public larder with political patronage.

I spend a number of months a year in Mississippi and am still amazed at how poorly it fares.  It is last among the 50 states in just about every economic and social indicator.  In many ways it mirrors the appalling situation in the inner cities, such as that in Washington, D.C. which Colbert King describes.  If the legacy of slavery is still alive and well and contributive to social dysfunction anywhere, it is here where the Civil War and Reconstruction are not just vague and distant memories but living history.   Not only do black Mississippians suffer from the same pathologies as their brothers and sisters in D.C., but they have far fewer opportunities.  Anacostia is surrounded by wealth and opportunity.  Not so for the poor resident of the Delta or the Hills. Mississippi is the poorest state in the Union and its neighbors Alabama and Arkansas are not much better off.

There is, therefore, far less excuse for the corrosive and debilitating dysfunction of Washington’s inner cities to persist, and even more reason for black community leaders to re-organize their efforts on the basis of white and Asian norms, reject the easy path of entitlement and reliance on white guilt over slavery and racial abuse, and reform. 

If there were an easier way to achieve black-white parity, I would be for it; but there is not.  Just as the country is going through a painful restructuring to live within our means, poorly-functioning communities which have lived on external assistance for so long must also belt-tighten, look inward, and adopt more discipline and austerity.

Colbert King, while right to raise the issue of black illiteracy, unfortunately offers no solutions.  ‘Teach our children to read and write’ is not enough.  He is most on target when he refers to the need for the black community to assume responsibility for its failures:

Our city’s most basic challenge is to teach children how to read and write and, equally important, how to use their literacy to gain control over their lives, foster their economic well-being and help lift up the community.

1 comment:

  1. If you don't read, you don't know and will never find out!! In 1913 more than 70% of the Black population in America was literate, a net gain of 65% in the fifty years since 1863 and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which supposedly freed the slaves. Currently our illiteracy rate within the Black inner-cities is well over 46%.. Are we reverting back to days of slavery and Reconstruction? Over 50% of Black inner-city students in grades 11 thru 12, are reading at or below a 4.9 grade level of achievement.. Please read my new book" The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement: Failure of America's Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations.." Its currently available on Amazon.com, or, Rosedogbooks.com..

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