Friday, October 19, 2007

Who's Responsible?

I very much like Marc Lamont Hill's post on the question of "responsibility" regarding issues facing the Black (particularly urban) community. Working off Philadelphia's new "10,000 men" program, which trains (mostly Black) young men to enter dangerous neighborhoods and act as "peacemakers", deterring illegal activity, Hill grapples with the strategic benefits and drawbacks of programs preaching such personal responsibility. Of course programs like 10,000 men are beneficial, if for no other reason than that they offer an alternative to the "police state" model of crime prevention in run-down areas -- an approach which has decimated these communities and made entire generations view the police as enemies, rather than protectors. But the rhetoric of such programs -- that with sufficient virtue and work ethic, the Black community can eliminate its problems without any broader social change, is dangerous. Hill argues:
If we’ve learned nothing from the historic Million Man March –where African American men became the first group of people to launch a protest march against themselves– we found out that the government and mainstream Americans will never stop large numbers of Negroes from confessing their collective sins in full public view. The problem is that, instead of inspiring policymakers to support our efforts, such actions reinforce the absurd notion that violence and poverty can be eliminated by embracing a gospel of individual responsibility. In this case, by agreeing to “take back our neighborhoods” we concede the point that we lost them solely due to our own personal failings.

The last time I checked, joblessness and crack had something to do with it too.

Rather than demanding higher wages, better schools, and stricter gun laws, the current plan absolves the government of its responsibility to protect our most vulnerable citizens. For example, even if we are to accept the quixotic idea that ten thousand unarmed civilians can make peace within inner-city war zones, couldn’t we expect even greater results from ten thousand trained officers? Unfortunately, the current initiative makes no such demands from the State.

The obvious solution, and the one Hill advocates, is to do both -- personally work to reduce violence and crime in our own neighborhoods, while also demanding that society at large do its part to remedy the structural forces holding back urban communities: lack of jobs, rundown and inadequate educational facilities, and economic isolation, to name a few. Certainly, personal responsibility is one plank in the bridge that will lead America to a just racial solution -- but a bridge with one plank is not very useful, no matter how solid it may be. A total solution is what's needed, and anybody who tries to look at the problem from a single angle -- be it totally structural, or totally personal, is going to come up short.

1 comment:

PG said...

I can see what he's saying about joblessness, and I could even concede the argument that people who commit unarmed theft in order to buy food are not acting immorally. But last time I checked, people choose to do crack. They choose to carry guns. If a neighborhood is a war zone, it's because people there chose to be armed. One's own addiction and one's own violence are personal failings, even if one wouldn't have engaged in those activities in a different environment.

I'm honestly confused as to how Hill thinks there will be an end to joblessness and economic isolation in a neighborhood unless there's a commitment to safety and cooperation with authority among all the people who live there. You can't even put a government office in an unsafe place because people won't want to go there for their services. For example, the liquor licensing for my area in NYC is in Harlem, but on the busiest, most vibrant street (125th), so I have no worry at all about going there because in the unlikely event someone tried to mug me, there are dozens of people around who could and probably would help me. Some areas are more deserted and unsafe, such that I would rather go downtown in order to get the government service I needed, which makes the office's provision of a dozen jobs tantamount to welfare; sure, the person is getting up and going to work, but nothing useful comes of it. The only option I can think of for the government to revitalize an unsafe area would be to set up a call center there (so no one other than the workers would have to go there), and we all know where *those* jobs went ;-)