Guilt by Assimilation

According to the latest census data, until the mid-1990s, over 30% of all African Americans lived in poverty. Since then, the percentage has dropped into the 20s and, since 2000, it has never exceeded 25%. Clearly, there’s an accelerating upward economic trend among African Americans.

According to other census data, in the 1980s, only 51.2% of African Americans had a high school education, and only 8.4% had a college education. By 2006, 80.7% had a high school education and 18.5% were college graduates. That’s pretty impressive. African Americans are not only better educated and better off economically now than at any point in history, but the rate of progress has increased dramatically over the last 20 years.

The current generation of African Americans have much greater opportunities than their parents’ generation had. And their parents’ generation had vastly greater opportunities than their parents’ generation had. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, among both blacks and whites, there’s a widespread and destructive stereotype of African American culture, based on what is actually a minority of African Americans, — the ghetto culture. The ghetto culture, even though a minority, gets all the media attention. TV, movies, music, hip hop chic, etc. all glorify this violent, crime-ridden, drug-fueled, defiantly anti-white subculture, and foster the impression that this is the “real” black culture. And the worse news is, blacks who have no part in this subculture are made to feel somehow guilty, or “less black,” for the very reason that they have nothing to do with it.

Those who are immersed in the ghetto subculture, either because they’re not motivated to work their way out of it, or because they’ve found ways to profit from it, have discovered the power of guilt they hold over many blacks who have assimilated into the mainstream of American culture. Those in the ghetto subculture minority jump on every opportunity to prey on that guilt, either to drag down those who have soared above them, or to manipulate and take advantage of them in any way they can. Many successful professional black Americans find themselves susceptible to these racial guilt trips. Aware of being a minority in the milieu in which they live and work, they feel an artificial connection to a subculture in which blacks appear to be the majority, thinking that, on some level, that’s where they “belong.” Nothing could be more false or insidious.

Every ethnic group that has come to this country started out clustering together in ghettos for support, and had to fight against ignorance and stereotypes until they gradually assimilated into the mainstream culture. That’s how the melting pot that is America works. It may be wrong to stereotype and automatically distrust those who are different, but it’s part of human nature. It goes back to pre-civilization, where survival depended on banding together with others who shared certain commonalities, and fighting off marauding intruders seeking to usurp their territory. Fear of “otherness” is genetically encoded in our species. As civilized humans, we’ve learned to overcome that atavistic instinct, but its vestiges are still there, lurking beneath the surface in all of us.

From an anthropological perspective, the fear of “otherness” is resolved by assimilation. An “other” becomes part of a society by adapting to the culture, adopting the social mores, and becoming a contributing member of the community. There’s nothing wrong with assimilation. It’s part of the natural evolution of societies. This country has become the great country it is today through the assimilation of all kinds of people from all over the world, benefiting both the country and the people who choose to share in its culture and leverage the myriad opportunities it offers.

The path to assimilation for African Americans has been longer than for other cultures in this country. There are many reasons for that, most of which are beyond the scope of this post. But, certainly, the burden of false guilt that successful black people are made to feel for not being “black enough” can only be counterproductive. It’s the successful African Americans, who are following the natural course of social adaptation, progress, and upward mobility, who are promoting the best interests of their race. There is no shame in that. The shame is on those who would hold them back.

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  1. “Those who are immersed in the ghetto subculture, either because they’re not motivated to work their way out of it, or because they’ve found ways to profit from it, have discovered the power of guilt they hold over many blacks who have assimilated into the mainstream of American culture.”

    Wow. What a loaded comment. I guess I didn’t take the above quote with ill will, but I do think that such a statement ignores HUGE societal/cultural facts that really are the root of the problem. For instance, how are teenage parents who didn’t have parents themselves expected to understand and actualize positive and progressive parenting? That is to say, how can you hold someone accountable for understanding those things which they were never taught? This lack of learning (or even understanding the importance of the learning itself) creates a cycle that continues to plague the Black community. To say that the “ghetto minority” is lazy is a misrepresentation of the truth…possibly influenced by the media outlets that you warn not to pay attention to. Ghetto families work hard to live too…but with less viable resources than your average blue collar family (decent schools, degrees/education, outlets for talent expression, concern within the city, etc.) and thus have little-to-no upward mobility. To blame the current “ghetto minority” for the entirety of their circumstance is comparable to blaming current US troops for their presence in Iraq…there’s a context to why they are where they are, which they may not have had very much input on…and it cannot be ignored.


  2. Thanks for your comment, CopperSun. I’m aware that not everybody living in the ghetto is part of what I referred to, for lack of a better term, as the “ghetto subculture.”

    I’m very much aware that not everybody who lives in ghettos is part of that subculture, and not everybody who is part of that subculture lives in a ghetto. There are rich rappers (who may live in Beverly Hills, for all I know), who are a very influential part of that subculture. And I don’t assume everyone in that subculture is lazy. I know there are those who embrace it because they make a profit off of it, or it offers them power that they wouldnn’t otherwise have. But, whatever you call it, the subculture that associates African Americans with drugs, crime, promiscuity, and racial separatism is detrimental to the majority of African Americans, who are not involved in that subculture, but get “tarred with the same brush.”

    That’s the point I’m making. I wish I had a more descriptive term to identify that subculture. If you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.

  3. BTW, I realize the point you were making was not that everyone in that subculture isn’t lazy, but that everybody living in the ghetto isn’t lazy. And I’m very much aware of that, too. I know there are a lot of people who live in ghettos who work hard to support their families. And I believe that people who have a strong work ethic and place a high priority on educating their kids, whether or not they’re educated themselves, are the people whose children everntually work their way out of the ghetto.

    Teenage parents with no parenting skills, who were raised with no “family values,” are a whole other problem. I strongly believe that every individual, no matter what circumstances brought them to their current situation in life, is responsible for their own behavior, the decisions they make, and the consequences of them. I believe we do more harm than good by absolving people of having to take responsibility for their own lives. I believe people who cannot afford to raise children shouldn’t have children.

    The very situation you mentioned, of teenaged parents who had no parents themselves, is one of the biggest contributing factors to perpetuating the cycle of poverty. For that reason, I believe it’s wrong to support and enable that behavior, and I think the government should stop paying poor people to have children. But that’s a whole separate issue.

  4. I think a perfect example of what African-Americans can aspire to be is the old Bill Cosby Show. The Huxtables were a very successful family, but they never forgot their roots and frequently had jazz musicians or other historical figures over to ground their children in their culture. If their were more families of all colors like the Huxtables the world would be a much better place.

  5. One needs to be very careful in defining what a particular culture is all about. I question whether the Huxtables represented typical Black culture any more than the Nelsons represented typical White.

    For insight as to what the culture is all about, one needs to examine the rhetoric of its spokespersons. Cosby is one such. But the culture seems to reject Cosby as an “Uncle Tom.”

    The street culture clearly adopted Martin Luther King but since his death, the spokesmen receiving support seem to be of an altogether different ilk: Huey Newton, Jesse Jackson, Farakan, the Reverend Wright.

    In the circumstances, I think the best we can hope for is that the Black culture is as fractured as the White.

  6. The model I try to follow runs something like “I treat you with respect, and I expect you to treat me with respect.”


    I had the good fortune of studying Con Law with a couple of great professors. During the ’70’s there were a lot of new voices testing new ideas. One of them was the reality of segregation in the face of color-blind law. One need only remember the jubilation on display in the South when JFK was killed to realize that segregation was real. And wrong. It was hateful. It was…

    To hear that kind of hateful speech coming from Reverend Wright cannot be excused with “400 years of slavery.” Bull-oney.

    Separate but equal was the policy of the United States in 1896. We have no room for a new form of Plessy in 2008. This will not, as is suggested by the words of Senator Obama, narrow our differences.

  7. Jackson, I think it’s clear that black culture is just as fragmented as white culture. In fact, I don’t think one can even say there is a black culture any more than one can say there is a white culture. The mainstream American culture includes people of all ethnicities who have chosen to assimiliate and identify as Americans.

    The culture to which I referred as the “ghetto culture,” and to which you referred (perhaps more appropriately) as “street culture,” does not represent the majority of black people in America. But it is a very visible and “colorful” subculture, which is why the media likes to promote it so much, giving the impression that it’s the black culture. And that causes some blacks, who have fully embraced mainstream American culture and values, to feel a sense of misalgnment because they’re somehow not “black enough.”

    Perhaps the feeling of being “not black enough” has been an issue for Senator Obama, because he’s half white. Perhaps he never felt accepted by that culture that everyone seems to believe is the “real” black culture, and maybe that’s why he feels drawn to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his ilk.

    The problem is, as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has demonstrated so eloquently, that subculture is rife with hatred for white people, and for America. When even someone like Senator Obama, who seems compeletely invested in mainstream American culture, is drawn to that other subculture, it evokes a sense of distrust and betrayal in those who saw him as someone to whom race wasn’t an issue. It makes them wonder if perhaps all blacks harbor those feelings of rancor and racial resentment — even those, like Senator Obama, who grew up with no connection to that subculture.

    Obama is not going to resolve the race issue by pandering to those who want to hang back and perpetuate race hatred and feelings of vicitmization and entitlement. The way to move forward is to repudiate that separatist subculture and demonstate that there’s nothing wrong with assimilation, and that blacks in America can be as successful as anybody else when they stop focusing on race and focus instead on individual accomplishment.

  8. Separate but equal was rejected as a governmental policy but has never been abandoned as a social policy. That is what “White flight” is all about.

    The acceptance and assimilation of “Uncle Toms” in the resultant white suburbs demonstrates that the issue truly is one of culture rather than race.

    Inquiry might be made of those who have fled the ghettos if one would understand the nature of the conflict between the cultures.

  9. I take issue with referring to blacks who are assimilated into mainstream American culture as “Uncle Toms.” Successful professional black people don’t view themselves as Uncle Toms. They view themselves as Americans, participating in the American way of life. And so do I.

    Members of the ghetto/street subculture may view them as Uncle Toms, but why is what they think relevant? They don’t define what it means to be black in America. The fact that mainstream American culture is all too willing to accept their definition of “blackness” is what gives them the power to guilt-trip blacks who have risen above that, by making them feel they aren’t “black enough.”

    The term “Uncle Tom” is a perfect example. By using that terminology, you’re buying into that agenda and helping to perpetuate the myth that that subculture is the “true” black culture, and that those who reject it have somehow betrayed their race. The truth is the exact opposite, in every sense.

    Many blacks in the suburbs have fled the ghettos. But, increasingly, with every new generation, there are more and more blacks who didn’t have to flee the ghettos, because they were born into families that were already assimilated into mainstream American culture. Their parents or grandparents got out of the ghettos (or the rural equivalent), and worked their way up, making sure, with each generation, that their kids got a better education than they had. That’s how assimilation works. And, in the last half century, the rate of assimilation is increasing more rapidly with each new generation. Assumptions that applied to a majority of blacks a generation or two ago, often no longer apply.

  10. Not Your Daddy:

    Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what message you choose to interpret as indicative of the black culture will be a matter of personal preference.

    You personally may be in touch with the silent majority or you may only have a limited acquaintance. The vocal faction unfortunately voices a gospel of hate. And that gospel is the spirit of the streets. The terminology “uncle Tom” and “corporate n—–” are not my terminology. They come from the street.

    My bias comes from years of exposure on the streets. If I have developed calluses, it’s not my fault and not my guilt. The culture I was exposed to is one of hatred, violence, and entitlement. Not really anything one wants to get along with.

    That situation forces one to an election. Get involved in white hate groups and fight back or indulge in white flight. I don’t like white hate any more than black hate. Therefore, white flight.

  11. Whether the “vocal faction” of the street/ghetto subculture is a minority or not would be hard to determine, as there are no demographic indicators of attitude that show up in the census reports. However, the statistics do show a dramatic increase in college graduates among the black population, as well as a decrease in the percentage of blacks who are poor. I think that’s probably indicative of a trend toward assimilation.

    There are a great many more professionals among blacks today than there were a generation ago. And the black professionals with whom I work do not participate in street culture. Nor are they Uncle Toms. They’re successful, competent individuals.

    I don’t hang out in ghettos, so I may have a skewed perpsective. But, whichever faction is the majority, statistics show the trend is toward assimilation, upward mobility, and progress. I believe that’s a good thing. As for the vocal faction of the street/ghetto subculture, I think they get way too much attention at the expense of those who are truly accomplishing things. I don’t see their opinions as particularly relevant to anything, or anyone, outside their own subculture.

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