Racial Inequality and the Rhetoric of Responsibility


(originally published at Social Science Lite, x-posted at Postbourgie)

Last Spring, Brown University economist Glenn Loury presented at Harvard sociology’s Workshop on Race and Black Youth Culture. He titled his talk “Culture, Causation and Confusion: Why Bill Cosby is Wasting His Time,” engaging with the pervasive “rhetoric of responsibility” frequently applied to blacks in the United States. As Loury argued, our public discourse is saturated with demands on the so-called black community to police its own ranks. This rhetoric of “black communal responsibility” suggests that the solutions to racial inequality are cultural, and the ill-defined “black community” should therefore bear the burden of “fixing” its collective deficiencies.

The rhetoric of black communal responsibility is a common response to discussions of racial inequality, and black folks seem to be hearing it from both sides. From within, you have Bill Cosby, John McWhorter and even President Obama stressing the role of black parents in the cultivation and education of black children. From the outside, you have a slew of white conservatives, wide-eyed and incredulous, wondering why the black community just can’t lift itself out of disadvantage.

The problem, as Loury astutely pointed out, is that categories such as “black community,” “black culture,” and “black leaders” are political constructs void of intellectual definitions. So-called “culture talk” imputes a sense of groupness where no such political collectivity exists. African-Americans, as a race, have no institutional structures to police themselves and bring about the kind of solutions culture critics (like Cosby) demand. They don’t hold conferences or summits—at least, none that all blacks are required to attend by virtue of their racial identity. There aren’t any meeting minutes we can rifle through to make sure they are working to “fix” their collective culture. This notion of an aggregate “black community” was invented ex post facto with a distinctly political motive: impute agency on a racial category where none exists, and wipe our hands clean of any societal responsibility for inequality.

That’s not to say that racial groups don’t share certain histories, privileges, or disadvantages by virtue of their socially constructed racial identity. Moreover, many racial and ethnic groups often share certain traditions, rituals, and affinities. As a Jew, I frequently refer to myself as a “member of the tribe,” implying both a shared allegiance and shared history with my fellow Tribesmen. Such is the general case for other races and ethnicities in the U.S., African-Americans included.

But that doesn’t mean they can be expected to act like a civic collectivity or a civic organization and, by extension, engage in civic action. Who elected Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson to be the spokesmen for the so-called black community? I don’t seem to recall a campaign or election for these self-appointed leaders. Yet the “black culture” rhetoric, purported so frequently in public discourse, assumes their civic appointment. The ability of blacks to act as a distinct group is taken for granted—an assumption of their collective agency. But a racial category is not a group with civic powers. Nor is it a collective body with a unified political or cultural agenda. As University of Chicago sociologist Mario Small has argued on countless occasions, there are multiple black communities and multiple black cultures.

The rhetoric of black communal responsibility imputes collective agency where none exists, assuming group-level cultural deficiencies while ignoring the society-level creation and maintenance of racial inequality. The logic is problematic and condescending at best, dangerous and incendiary at worst. It at once obscures the tremendous diversity among African-Americans and distracts our attention away from the actual causes of inequality. Whatever “the black community” is, we can’t exactly depend on “it” to solve, or do, anything without the institutional means to solve, or do, anything. Assuming communal responsibility is dead-end rhetoric, promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy of disadvantage. It serves a political purpose, but does little to advance our intellectual understanding of inequality.

Individual communities can certainly make important contributions toward greater social equality. But you just can’t expect an artificially constructed group, based on an arbitrarily constructed racial category, to solve inequality at the national level by itself. You can’t expect action where no institutional ability to act exists.

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12 comments for “Racial Inequality and the Rhetoric of Responsibility

  1. September 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I only buy into this to a certain point: a lot of the division into ideas of “the black community” comes from arguments about policies that are ostensibly worthy of advocating for because they get at ameliorating the history of racism in this country; i.e. they’re there to help, principally, blacks, which turns blacks into a community of beneficiaries– a black community. So when there’s discussion about government action to limit ‘redlining’, or when policy concerning public school funding or public health care or welfare or the criminal justice system are raised as issues of race by EITHER side of such debates, they construct artifical communities around whomever is supposed to be affected by the supposed racism of the topic at hand. From that perspective, you could say that people like Bill Cosby have pulled themselves out of the black community by not grouping themselves in as the beneficiaries of those debates as they exist today. However, in the sense that a black kid whose parents are business-owning West Indian immigrants in Queens (New York) both gets the advantages of affirmative action based largely in economic disparities (setting aside systemic racism, which is also part of AA) that are not part of this kid’s life, and also has to suffer from police racial profiling that springs from crime rates driven by teens living below the poverty level in single- or no-parent welfare- or crime-supported households in the South Bronx… well, that kid in Queens and one of those kids in the Bronx are both part of a constructed community, and we– both the non-black population that has these conversations, and the participants from the black population who are involved– can either learn to de-couple race from these conversations, or we can deal with the effects of defining these conversations by race. However, we butt our heads against the wall fruitlessly if we pretend there isn’t some kind of forced community created by defining policy discussions along racial lines, even when the criteria feeding those discussions are casually driven by other forces.

    There’s also a certain amount of shorthand inherent in conversations about race. How many of the West Indian immigrants heard President Obama inveigh against absentee black fathers and nodded in agreement about how awful it is that the poor, unemployed, unmarried, American-born men over in the South Bronx aren’t marrying the mothers of their children or taking a role in improving their children’s lives (I’M NOT SAYING THAT’S WHO’S IN THE SOUTH BRONX, I’M INVENTING AN INTERNAL MONOLOGUE FOR THE PEOPLE IN THIS EXAMPLE)? Sometimes when we talk about race, we’re invoking a stereotype that excludes most of the people who are intended to be excluded, even if the strict terms used don’t make that clear. Think of the weirdness of the term “people of color”, and how frequently policies advocated ostensibly in favor of people in “communities of color” leave certain Asia-originating communities feeling attacked or left out.

    At the same time, there’s no reason not to at least recognize that we need some more nuance in how we understand these terms, and that the public discourse is capable of becoming sophisticated if there’s a large enough body of people who are committed to introducing that nuance. For example, much of the United States is capable of differentiating “Feminism” and “Radical Feminism”, even if the two concepts are fuzzy in most people’s minds. To that end, there’s a value in identifying that there are multiple black communities and cultures, and it’s worth specifying “low-income northeastern urban black communities” or “suburban middle class black communities”, even if that still encompasses a wide range of variety.

  2. September 23, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    The more I think about this, though, the more I’m reminded that there’s also currency to a ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall’ approach; it just carries costs with it, like having the union of forces behind these movements getting lumped together as a community.

  3. Whu
    September 23, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    The “rhetoric of black communal responsibility” is just that … RHETORIC. First of all, Bill Cosby is not the spokesperson and never has been for black America. He is a comedian by trade. A good one, but a comic nonetheless. Furthermore, if he were going to seriously take on the role of a full-time activist he would have done it earlier in his career. Unfortunately, the untimely and tragic death of his son Ennis is what has triggered the latter public obligation to be a spokesperson as Mr. Cosby continues the Ennis Cosby Foundation in his late son’s name. That is what the upstart “civil rights” career of Bill Cosby is all about. He certainly means well, and still is one of America’s favorite sons, but when he speaks now, if you listen closely enough, you hear a tinge of senility setting in, just a tinge. My response is not to be critical of Mr. Cosby, it’s intended to let the masses know (or the few who might read your blog) that Black America is doing fine. And before the rest of America can in any way shape or form, critique Black America, it must get its own house in order, and this includes other black people who choose to belitte their own race.

    We are all branches of the same tree so when you are critical of Black or White Americans, you do damage to the entire Human Tree.

  4. JutGory
    September 23, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    That is fine to say that there is no “black community” and that it has no ability to fix its own problems and that it has no collective agency. But, then, if non-blacks are expected to be fixing those problems, they should not be lightly accused of racism for pointing out what those problems are.
    Statistically speaking, the “black community” does have problems that can be identified (high rates of out-of-wedlock births, high incarceration rates, poor school performance, and black-on-black violence).
    Take education, for example. It is fair to say that some of those problems can be tied to societal factors (poorly-funded urban schools), but they can also be tied to cultural factors (less emphasis on academic achievement by one’s peers, or even outright ridicule by one’s peers for “acting white” by valuing education). To fix the problem, both sides have to be addressed.
    That WILL NOT happen if it is presumed that any criticism of the “black community” springs from racism.

  5. September 23, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Oh, boy.


    Statistically speaking, the “black community” does have problems that can be identified (high rates of out-of-wedlock births, high incarceration rates, poor school performance, and black-on-black violence).
    Take education, for example. It is fair to say that some of those problems can be tied to societal factors (poorly-funded urban schools), but they can also be tied to cultural factors (less emphasis on academic achievement by one’s peers, or even outright ridicule by one’s peers for “acting white” by valuing education). To fix the problem, both sides have to be addressed.
    That WILL NOT happen if it is presumed that any criticism of the “black community” springs from racism.

    You’re showing your hand here. The first and most obvious problem with your argument is that the dysfunctional black pathology narrativeis in fact racist. The “acting white” meme is the laziest kind of cultural analysis — it assumes that there is something specifically black about disdain academic/intellectual achievement; white kids and Asian kids apparently never get picked on by their peers/classmates for being nerdy and bookish. Right. This stance also assumes that this alleged penchant for anti-intellectualism is more pronounced among black people. (I seem think of a certain former president and a certain former Alaskan senator whose disdain for book learnin’ marked them among lots of people as just “regular folk” who didn’t put on airs.)

    Let’s consider this: black kids are less likely to be placed in AP/honors classes (and black males, especially, are more likely to be seriously disciplined than their nonblack counterparts for disruptions). What happens is that the few black kids in honors classes — or in more moneyed, predominantly white school districts — end up socializing with the white peers with whom they spend much of their class/school time, and are picked on for not exhibiting sufficient racial solidarity. It’s happened to all of my friends who went to school in the suburbs. Is it problematic? Absolutely. But it’s a fundamentally different than equating academic achievement with racial treason, and it is always conveniently interpreted by those ostracized/wounded black teenagers (and social critics with agendas) as hating on those kids for “doing well.”

    I say this as a black dude who went to an academically rigorous Philadelphia public high school that was overwhelmingly African American — that idea is complete nonsense. But there are obvious reasons why that narrative gets so much attention.

    In summation: GTFOHWTBS.

    • Jeremy
      September 23, 2009 at 11:16 pm

      G.D. is exactly right on every count. The idea of a distinct “black culture” that we can, as Jut says “statistically” measure, is ridiculous. Cultural dispositions emerge out of unique contexts, which G.D. rightfully points out.

      On a more factual level, these “statistically proven” facts you bring up are highly contentious. The issue of disproportionate levels of black incarceration for example: Are they more likely to offend? Given harsher sentences? More likely to be convicted, relative to whites? Is the increase in incarceration a cause of more offenders, or is it shifts in the punitive justice system? Or is it the expansion of prisons? On out of wedlock births: Is it that blacks and/or poor people are more inclined, culturally, to have babies out of wedlock? Or is it that the number of marriageable men are lower, relative to whites–a function of the decline in union membership (itself a function of changing labor policy), economic opportunities, and depressed demand for non-skilled workers?

      “The other side,” as you write, isn’t exactly as clear–or even as “cultural–as you suggest. And that of course, was part of the point of the post: the idea of a “black community” or “black culture” is an ideological construct. There are many communities, many cultures, and all are situated in particular contexts.

  6. Laurel
    September 24, 2009 at 4:42 am

    Oh come now, we all know that if those kids would just pull their pants up, racism would vanish.

    Sorry, I’ve been living back at Mom’s for awhile now. Such close proximity to someone who really believes this crap has left me incapable of anything but snark.

  7. squirrely
    September 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

    This is a really interesting question that I think is not just about “black culture” (obvs). There are so many interwoven threads in the culture/race/ethnicity mashup. I don’t think you can say, across the board,that “a racial category is not a group with civic powers.” In Bosnia or Serbia, for example, there were explicit civic powers that came with your ethnicity. A racial group, even as it is sociologically, not biologically, defined, can in fact become a civic force.

    There is also some history here that needs to be unpacked. Bill Cosby did not invent the idea that “black culture” needs to take care of itself. Malcom X was saying something similar when he argued for community support of Black retailers and professionals, and the pan-African movement did a lot to instill as sense of pride in African Americans by arguing for a common culture and reference point.

    I think we’ve moved in to a more sophisticated place where we can recognize both things as true: There is no monolithic Black Culture, no annual meeting or spokesperson, and yet the presence of racism in our society *does* create certain shared experiences and there are very real cultural trends that emerge. However, those trends are exploited to make overly broad statements about what it means to be “black” and “white” and the most rigid enforcers of these stereotypes come from popular culture. Witness the infuriating website “Stuff White People Like.”

    • Jeremy
      September 24, 2009 at 8:27 am

      That is a profoundly astute point, squirrely. I’ve actually copied and pasted it into a Word document as a resource to refer back to if/when I think about this whole concept again. Thank you!

  8. September 24, 2009 at 8:52 am

    This puts me in mind of a conversation I had with the Asian American Literature class I am teaching this semester. We were talking about race and ethnicity: how they overlap, how they are distinct, etc. There are several Black people in the class, some who are African-American and some who are from other countries. In the course of the conversation, by way of illustration, I pointed out that while the term Black might apply to all of the people I just mentioned, the term African-American would not, unless the Blacks from other countries chose to identify themselves as African-American. A little later in the conversation–and I am not going to give the blow by blow of how we got there–when I pointed out that it was not like all the Black people in the world formed a committee and decided that they should be known as Black people, that the racial category Black was created and imposed on them by white people, it was kind of wonderful to see all the little light bulbs going off over most of my students’ heads.

  9. Katie
    September 24, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    This is a great post – I too will be referring to this when that damn “take responsibility” argument comes around again.

  10. B. Adu
    September 25, 2009 at 4:26 am

    less emphasis on academic achievement by one’s peers, or even outright ridicule by one’s peers for “acting white” by valuing education

    Oh please, this is so delusionally vainglorious, I’m almost lost for words.

    Non blacks reject plenty of facts and knowlege. The difference is we’re expected to pretend that this always happens to co-incide with the limits of reality; if we don’t go along, much rage ensues.

    Whilst I’ve been taught to value education myself, there is a difference between valuing learning and knowledge and elevating everything you are told-by those in charge of how education is defined-to the status of knowledge or fact, uncritically.

    Conflating the two costs black people, heavily, so at least some awareness of that could been seen as an exercise in self responsibility.

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