Not So Deep Thoughts

Personal Problems, Political Solutions


Written by Joe Pettit
Baltimore Sun Op-Ed, originally published September 22, 2005, p.19A



No one can avoid noticing the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of poor and black Americans who have suffered the worst of Hurricane Katrina.  Many claim that out of Katrina’s devastation a new opportunity to address poverty in our country has emerged.  But this opportunity will be wasted if we continue to think about poverty as we have in the past


Our basic mistake is to conclude that poverty is primarily a matter of personal responsibility rather than understanding it as both a personal and a political problem.  Billions of dollars in government aid and millions of dollars in private donations are pouring into the affected Gulf Coast region because few people blame the victims of Katrina for their homes, families and jobs being washed away.  Responsibility for relief and rebuilding, therefore, is rightly found to lie with those of us who have not been harmed by Katrina.


Yet not long from now, we will start to hear questions about how “those people” found themselves in such poverty before Katrina.  Quickly, the public discussion will move away from governmental failures to personal failures, laziness, crime and the “culture of poverty.”


We are familiar with the sight of Bill Cosby lecturing poor, black parents and teenagers.  And a few weeks ago, black columnist William Raspberry wrote that the rate of out-of-wedlock births among blacks is now at two-thirds.  The problems discussed by Mr. Cosby, Mr. Raspberry and others are certainly major, and they obviously are personal problems.  Rarely is one forced to become a parent before one is married; rarely is one forced into the world of illegal drugs.


Perhaps because of this strong personal dimension, efforts to address the problems seem to focus exclusively on personal rather than political change.  In fact, advocating for political change can be regarded as detrimental to getting individuals to take responsibility for their actions.  The result is that most people everywhere see only personal problems, not political ones.


But a perverse logic of racial inferiority and superiority lurks within this discussion when we fail to notice the political dimensions of these problems.  If we believe that personal decisions are the only things that need to be changed, we will eventually start to wonder why so many more blacks than others need to be making these changes, especially when compared with whites.


If the problems are a matter of character, and they disproportionately affect black communities, a stigma will attach itself to blacks as individuals who, in general, will be seen to be of inferior moral character.


As I see this stigma grow around them, I wonder if when my students hit those difficult moments of college life – academically and personally – some of them will give up or make the wrong decisions simply because so many outside of black communities – and even some inside them – are sending subtle messages that these students are born to fail.


Of course, almost no one will admit that they are promoting messages of black inferiority and white supremacy.  In fact, most would be offended by the accusation, and I don’t think that most people who emphasize the personal dimension of the issues that plague many black communities are closet racists.


But no one has made clear how political action can make a difference in situations that so clearly involve nonpolitical and very personal choices.  If no political response is clearly identified, insisting on personal responsibility is the only alternative.


Yet politics, the consequences of law and policy over time, is the only real alternative if we insist that no differences in character and ability exist between blacks and whites.  While no law or policy can ever be the cause of a person’s bad choice, any nonracist explanation of why certain  black choices plague black communities much more than others must expose political realities that devastate communities just as much as the bad choices of those who live in them.


Acknowledging this connection between the personal and the political begins with accepting a collective responsibility for addressing these very serious problems.  What might this look like in Maryland?


First, replicate throughout the state Montgomery County’s nationally recognized inclusionary zoning program that uses market forces to create affordable housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods.


Second, investigate ways that our criminal punishment system perpetuates racial inequality.  Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department show that although blacks constituted 15 percent of drug users nationally in 1998, they represent 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, 53 percent of drug convictions and 56 percent of those in prison for drug offenses.  Maryland should work to reduce racial disparities at all levels of the criminal punishment spectrum.


Third, stop nickel-and-diming social services.  Instead of asking, “What can we cut?” we need to ask, “What does research tell us works and how can we find the funds to replicate such programs for those who need them?”  Correcting great injustice cannot and should not be cheap.


We have failed to see political emergencies and have been content to see only personal crises.  Yet just as every individual lectured to by Bill Cosby and others must accept responsibility for his or her actions, each of us must accept responsibility for the political choices of the past and for our political choices today.  The problems are “ours,” each of us together, not “theirs.”  We are all responsible for each other.