Black America is still not free. Despite the abolition of slavery and passage of civil rights laws, something still holds people back — themselves.
That's the view of psychologist Dr. James Davidson, Jr., who says a major problem facing black America is an attitude of self-defeat. He explains his views in his new book "Sweet Release: The Last Step to Black Freedom."
Raised in a poor community himself, Mr. Davidson paints a bleak portrait of the world he escaped: "Legions of teenagers, pregnant or orchestrating their lives towards pregnancy, stroll shamelessly through our streets. Single-parent homes dominate our neighborhoods and typify the deficient rearing grounds of most of our children. Black males — little more than sperm donors — wander the streets engaged in an interminable adolescence."
Mr. Davidson believes an attitude of defeatism and hostility by blacks toward fellow blacks who, after earning success, are accused of failing to "keep it real" to be at the root of this social disaster. He finds people falling into two categories: "advancers," who are "industrious, hardworking and up to freedom's challenges" and "delayers," who feel "entitled, negative and self-defeated." Advancers reject myths of an unbeatable system, avoid the pitfalls of vice and work hard. Delayers do the opposite, to the extent that they even discourage friends and family from striving to escape poverty.
To explain why someone would choose such a deeply flawed environment, Mr. Davidson cites comfort and familiarity. Believing the game of life is stacked against them, someone with a victim mentality finds an odd sense of security by limiting their choices.
The dangerous indulgences stereotyping some black communities are delayers' norm: "Partying and all other forms of avoidance serve as ego defense mechanisms — that is, if I stop partying/having constant sex/getting high/working on my jump shot/being criminal, then I must... get out there to challenge others for jobs and careers." Staying put is an easy option.
In contrast, pursuing success places responsibility squarely on the advancer's shoulders, often straining or breaking family and community bonds.
Mr. Davidson knows he will be pilloried for saying this. He was denounced in 1993 for his book "Prisoners of our Past." An Amazon customer review of it said he "would have been a good house negro back in the slave days... Does he understand slavery and oppression scared [sic] us mentally?... This book could have easily been written by a racist white man."
Mr. Davidson believes the criticism he receives comes because he stands in direct opposition to the tactics and ideologies of the preachers of "separatism and non-acceptance." His personal rise from squalor to success discredits their rhetoric.
"White liberals and black separatists," Mr. Davidson also points out, share "an agenda that proffers up black people as perpetual victims. Both are invested in keeping us dependent or struggling or downtrodden or angry... Black overachievers... cannot rely strongly on either white liberal support or black separatist acceptance.... [because they] do not fit a prescribed way of being black."
But, although he criticizes liberals, Mr. Davidson is quick to note he is no conservative. He writes: "My behaviors and ideas [are] anything but conservative. Trying to improve one's social and economic lot by rejecting traditional societal and black community standards for achievement seemed antithetical to [being] conservative."
The apolitical goal of Sweet Release is to create advancers: "What you seek is simply not in the 'hood. It never has been, and it never will be... We must now move beyond our own remaining chains, beyond the mental barriers that keep so many of us constrained in our thoughts and deeds."
One key suggestion is to reject the concept of a collective, binding black identity. "Be what you want. Marry whomever you want. Believe what you will. Behave as you desire," writes Mr. Davidson. "Because when the time comes for you to die, all those who restrict you now will not be able to hand you another life to live as your own. It will be you dying."
While recognizing America is imperfect, Mr. Davidson points out it is not the nation it once was. The black middle class is constantly growing and successful blacks are no longer "trailblazers" because the trail is already blazed.
The startling change is that it is no longer systemic white prejudice, but rather a systemic black prejudice against those who strive for success that accounts for many of the lingering problems plaguing black America.
Reece Epstein is a research associate for the Project 21 black leadership network.