'A Tragically Warped Sense of What It Means to Be Black'

“Why you talk white, Uncle Jason? Don’t my uncle sound white? Why he trying to sound so smart?” – Jason Riley’s niece, age nine.


Wall Street Journal writer, Jason Riley’s book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, has some fascinating things to say, not only about underclass black culture, but about its powerful and pernicious influences on middle-class blacks. The above quotation from his little niece indicates how early that culture – the disdain for being “smart,” its identification with being white - can take hold.


Riley writes about his youth growing up in Buffalo with parents who were divorced, but passionately devoted to raising their children well. Early on, his father moved the family out of their black neighborhood because he didn’t want his kids influenced by the decay all around them and taken in by “knuckleheads” and “thugs.” They moved to a mostly white neighborhood, University Heights, near the University of Buffalo. The Riley family was solidly middle-class and young Jason shunned underclass culture, gravitating instead toward sports and books. His two sisters and his friend Trevor went the other direction.


Riley’s drive for good grades and proper speech made him the butt of jokes both in and outside his family. Even a teacher once derided his good diction in front of the whole class. Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar endured the same when he transferred to his first-ever all-black elementary school:


I found myself punished for doing everything I’d ever been taught was right. I got all A’s and was hated for it; I spoke correctly and was called a punk. I had to learn a new language simply to be able to deal with the threats. I had good manners and was a good little boy and paid for it with my hide.


Riley describes a black underclass culture that disdains education, hard work, even success itself unless it’s within a narrow sphere bounded by sports figures, rappers and the like. It’s a culture we’ve all seen, if not in person, then on the news and in myriad movies and TV shows. The superb HBO series, The Wire, is as fine a representation of that world as I’ve ever seen. So, we all know about the world of the black underclass that’s fraught with drugs, violence and prison, a world that considers school, work, responsibility, obeying the law, etc. the lot of chumps.


But Riley goes further. Growing up middle-class, his black friends were mostly middle-class as well and so, “not destined for Buffalo’s mean streets,” but, as if drawn to a lodestone, they got there. Indeed, Riley’s ability to avoid doing so himself looks like a form of heroism, an overcoming of great odds.


My parents did what they could, but in the end, neither the church nor University Heights proved impenetrable. By the time I graduated from high school, my older sister was a single mom. By the time I graduated from college, my younger sister was dead from a drug overdose. A short time later, Trevor would also be dead, and his sister would also be a single mother.


Not just Riley’s friends and siblings, others too were smart kids with dedicated parents and a bit of affluence.


These were black kids from good families who nevertheless fell victim to social pathologies: crime, drugs, teen pregnancies, and a tragically warped sense of what it means to be black. Some were ghetto kids from broken homes with the odds stacked against them. But a surprising number were middle-class children from intact families who chose to reject middle-class values. They were not destined for Buffalo’s mean streets. They had options and they knew better.


In short, those kids who had choices, the opportunity to go to college and make respectable, productive lives for themselves and their loved ones, chose not to. They knowingly, intentionally chose drugs, crime and single parenthood and paid the price. Whatever can be said about poor black kids growing up in broken families, who know little but those “mean streets” and the inside of prison, there’s more to the dysfunctional part of black culture than just them. Somehow, those dysfunctional behaviors powerfully attract kids with options who know better.


The question is “why?” Why would anyone choose a path they know leads to a bad end if they can do better?


It’s a phenomenon that’s drawn some interest by researchers. I’ll have more to say about that next time.

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