Have we taken our eyes off the prize? The civil rights movement continues, but the struggle today is not so much in the streets as in the home -- and with our children. If systemic racism remains a reality, there is also a far more sinister obstacle facing African American young people today: a culture steeped in bitterness and nihilism, a culture that is a virtual blueprint for failure.
The emphasis on young people in today's civil rights struggle is rooted in demographics. America's black, Hispanic and immigrant population is far younger than its white population. Those young people of color live in the big cities and rely on big-city public schools.
With 50 percent of Hispanic children and nearly 70 percent of black children born to single women today these young people too often come from fractured families where there is little time for parenting. Their search for identity and a sense of direction is undermined by a twisted popular culture that focuses on the "bling-bling" of fast money associated with famous basketball players, rap artists, drug dealers and the idea that women are at their best when flaunting their sexuality and having babies.
In Washington, where a crime wave is tied to these troubled young souls, the city reacts with a curfew. It is a band-aid. The real question is how one does battle with the culture of failure that is poisoning young people -- and do so without incurring the wrath of critics who say we are closing our eyes to existing racial injustice and are "blaming the victim."
Recently Bill Cosby has once again run up against these critics. In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Cosby took on that culture of failure in a speech that was a true successor to W.E.B. DuBois's 1903 declaration that breaking the color line of segregation would be the main historical challenge for 20th-century America. In a nation where it is getting tougher and tougher to afford a house, health insurance and a college education -- in other words, to attain solid middle-class status -- Cosby decried the excuses for opting out of the competition altogether.
Cosby said that the quarter of black Americans still living in poverty are failing to hold up their end of a deal with history when they don't take advantage of the opportunities created by the Supreme Court's Brown decision and the sacrifices of civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Thurgood Marshall and Malcolm X. Those leaders in the 1950s and '60s opened doors by winning passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and fair housing laws. Their triumphs led to the nationwide rise in black political power on school boards and in city halls and Congress.
Taken as a whole, that era of stunning breakthroughs set the stage for black people, disproportionately poor and ill-educated because of a history of slavery and segregation, to reach new heights -- freed from the weight of government-sanctioned segregation. It also created a national model of social activism to advance the rights of women, Hispanics, gays and others.
Cosby asked the chilling question: "What good is Brown" and all the victories of the civil rights era if nobody wants them? A generation after those major civil rights victories, black America is experiencing alarming dropout rates, shocking numbers of children born to single mothers and a frightening acceptance of criminal behavior that has too many black people filling up the jails. Where is the focus on taking advantage of new opportunities to advance and to close the racial gap in educational and economic achievement?
Incredibly, Cosby's critics don't see the desperate need to pull a generational fire alarm to warn people about a culture of failure that is sabotaging any chance for black people in poverty to move up and help their children reach the security of economic and educational achievement. Not one mainstream civil rights group picked up on his call for marches and protests against bad parenting, drug dealers, hate-filled rap music and failing schools.
Where is the civil rights groundswell on behalf of stronger marriages that will allow more children to grow up in two-parent families and have a better chance of staying out of poverty? Where are the marches demanding good schools for those children -- and the strong cultural reinforcement for high academic achievement (instead of the charge that minority students who get good grades are "acting white")? Where are the exhortations for children to reject the self-defeating stereotypes that reduce black people to violent, oversexed "gangstas," minstrel show comedians and mindless athletes?
In order to face this century's class battles, young minds need the self-confidence that comes from examples of inspiring historical personalities, such as a black woman born into slavery who made herself a national leader, Sojourner Truth, or a black man living under rank segregation, A. Philip Randolph, who defied corporate power to break segregation in organized labor. Frederick Douglass had to teach himself how to read before standing up to defeat slavery.
These examples should empower young people to believe in themselves and to organize across racial lines and build institutions with a solid footing in the nation's political and economic power. This is real black culture, and it is based on strong families creating determined, self-reliant young people.
The defining challenge for this generation of Americans dealing with poverty is putting the next generation in a position to move even higher. Individuals must now use the opportunities made available to them by the sacrifices of past generations if they are to achieve victory in America's long and still unfinished civil rights movement.
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