Michael Eric Dyson: Responsibility in the Black Community

Question: Does the upper-middle class black community have a responsibility to the lower class?

Michael Eric Dyson:  I think there is no question that upper middle class black people have a responsibility to help those who are in the lower class. Now let me say at the outset that I certainly believe that the lion’s share of responsibility does not rest with the black middle class because the black middle class didn’t create the problem. The black middle class can’t solve it. Now it can help relieve it. It can help resolve it. It can help share its largesse so to speak. Look at what happened during Hurricane Katrina. Millions of well-to-do black people stepped up and addressed the lag between American ideals and American practices, of the failure to address the economic exigency of the people who were left behind in the Gulf Coast. The rallying together of the black elite to provide relief for their poorer brothers and sisters is important, but Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let’s not confuse charity and justice.”  Charity occurs because we are impelled by some internal dimension, some internally driven aspect of our character or persona to be charitable, to reach out and to help, but justice were it to exist would alleviate the necessity for charity. Charity is made possible by radical economic inequality. The reason Bill Gates, God bless him, can be so charitable toward inner city schools and other peoples who need it is because of the economic system so to speak that allows the radical proliferation of capital and the accumulation of capital in ways that ultimately don’t pan out to be fair, just and equal, because the people who have a better shot of getting that kind of cash are the people who have gotten that kind of cash or people who know the rituals, the insides. I’m not suggesting there are no self-made millionaires or billionaires in America. Of course there are, but what I am suggesting is that the lion’s share of wealth in this country is distributed among and between people who have wealth and the trickle-down effect is not nearly as powerful as one would like to see it, George Gilder and Ronald Reagan not withstanding. So there is no question that black people must deal with this strategically and in terms of the mainstream but rich black people and well-to-do black people must not use their bully pulpit as a means to extract from poor people promises to behave better while demonizing them. If anybody had a reason to demonize the poor, it was Martin Luther King Jr., but he didn’t do that.What did he do?  He loved poor people. He went to live with them. He identified with them. He was mad at poverty and loved poor people. Some rich black people now tend to be mad at poor people and not mad at the poverty that produces the ill effects that they must endure. The remarkable thing is most poor people behave well. They don’t rob and kill and steal. There is a small percentage of people who do so and that small percentage of people is now meant to represent the main and that’s just not true. The majority of poor black people don’t steal, kill, rob, murder or destroy. What they end up doing is trying to make the best out of a bad situation and they create opportunities, if not for themselves for their children, as best they can, but we have to look at the policies that prevail in America that disallow or at least discourage this- the flourishing of the most vulnerable. So for instance I think that Dr. King would have had a huge problem with comedians of note traveling the country on the kind of self-help circuit castigating and casting aspersion against the vulnerable black poor. This is not the best way to engage the situation that they confront. There is no question that accountability is necessary, that personal responsibility is a vital element to the social reconstruction of the poor, but why begin with the poor?  My Bible tells me that those who have much, much is required of them; to whom much has been given, much is required. Why then begin with the poor?  Why begin with those whose backs are against the wall, who are most vulnerable?  Why not begin with those who have resources?  Certain stands you can’t even create until you have enough money or opportunity or mobility to do so. Right. And so what’s interesting, to begin by lamenting the erosion morally speaking of the poor masses of black people is to miss the degree to which the structural inequities of American culture reproduce the pathology of poverty. Poverty is not a function of one’s behavior. If that were the case, most people, as recent studies have suggested, wouldn’t be poor during their lives and they are. The vast majority of Americans at some point along their trajectory will be poor so it can’t be mere failure of personality or failure to take personal responsibility. It is the inevitable cycle of so many Americans that they will endure some time of hardship and therefore suffer poverty, some not nearly as long as others. So I think ultimately yes, there is a huge responsibility of the black elite to use their bully pulpits not to berate black people but to challenge them, to uplift them, to encourage them and to make arguments on their behalf to people who otherwise might not be disposed to hear from the poor themselves.

Recorded on: May 16 2008 


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