What exactly is an idividual? my colleague Garlin Gilchrist II asks in a November 2007 essay for The SuperSpade blog. This is Black on Black Thought, and the question is, is individualism “destroying” the black community? [See Gilchrist’s take here].
What makes an individual an individual? In this context, the prevailing assumption is that an individual is one who makes it “on their own” with “no help” or “little support.”
Let’s stop right there.
It’s an old joke that no one actually took a 3-Martini Lunch before the media started “reporting” on businessmen taking liberties with their expense accounts.
The Bootstrap Myth — that certain individuals “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps” to get where they are — should, by now, occupy that same apocryphal status. The only people I’ve ever heard speak the Bootstrap Myth are the ones intending to shoot it down. It’s a trope. A strawman. I will issue an open challenge to anyone reading this page to find me the story of a successful man who says he got there on his own. Without friends and family support. Without mentorship. Without coaching. Without a lucky break. Find me just one, and then we can talk about bootstraps.
I don’t feel much of a need to defend something that no one has ever said. We continue.
Gilchrist: Take the entrepreneur that “pulled herself up by her own bootstraps.” She’s an individual, right? Nobody gave her anything, right? She got no hand-outs; she took full advantage of what was available to her. The funny part about that is, she didn’t create what was available to her, it was provided for her by someone/something else. That’s not very individual, is it? I’m sure she takes advantage of roads and freeways maintained by the city/county/state/federal government to transport herself, her products, and her services. I’m sure she takes advantage of the public (read: government-supplied/supported) primary, secondary, vocational, and advanced educational system to keep pumping out talented employees and smart consumers. If she was such an individual, she would have built her own damn freeway and school system.
Even the most Norquistian conservative will concede that infrastructure (freeways, schools) is a legitimate function of government. But when you start talking Midnight Basketball and welfare without limits and Bridges to Nowhere, people start getting off of the train.
The conservative frame of the individual is a fallacy, Gilchrist continues, one that’s destroying the black community:
Black folks in this country, and people of African descent around the world have never seen sustainable success or advancement when operating as a disparate band of individuals. It was called the Civil Rights Movement, not one guy’s fight for rights.
To which I retort: the Civil Rights Movement, and the doors it opened for black people, have empowered black people to think and act as individuals. Wasn’t that kinda the whole point — that blacks should be treated as individual people first, by the content of their character, and not have things assumed about them because they’re black?
If there is a solution to institutional racism, I haven’t heard it. Even in the supposedly tolerant bubble world of UM Ann Arbor, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the claims that racism on campus was prevelant; nor was it uncommon for The Michigan Review, our conservative newspaper, to be stolen by the shipment-full from campus newsstands. If institutional discrimination, in the racial and political spheres, can’t be rooted out from a place as supposedly liberal and evolved as Ann Arbor, forgive us individualists for not holding our breath for “structural inequities” to be rooted from America as a whole.
Arguing for a Civil Rights Movement mentality today is akin to thinking that if only the Millenials were more like their Baby-Boomer parents, we’d be out of Iraq right now. Different times call for different measures. I’m not going to sit here and deny that racism exists in America, nor that the structural inequities of the past have worked themselves out.
I don’t see that what’s needed is some new government program. Between slavery, Jim Crow, and welfare-as-a-right, the U.S. government has done quite enough for black people, thank you.
The thing is, I also don’t see that blacks who are doing their own thing, and not a part of “the black community” as a problem. Martin or Malcolm might shake their heads at the blacks who just get the nice job, move to the suburbs, and are never heard from again, but at some level they’d also know that his ability to do so is precisely what they were fighting for. One goal of the early Civil Rights Movement was to create the very same post-racial reality that Gilchrist proclaims a myth. That whole thing, about the man who “happens to be” black, that was a big part of the civil rights dream.
Charging those of us who fail to drink collectivist Kool-Aid with “destroying” anything is to miss many points, and the most obvious is that despite whatever struggles black people face, black people in America, in 2008, have it better off than we’ve ever had it and it’s not even close. There’s a very good chance that a black man could be elected President in November, yet we’re all supposed to open our history books to page 128 to study yet another of America’s broken promises to black people. As Barack Obama said in his race speech from Philadelphia, what’s amazing isn’t how badly blacks are doing, but how much we’ve accomplished, given the odds against us.
Gilchrist’s argument brings to mind the very same reason individualists shy away from the black community: membership fees are often too high. When people hear that they need sacrifice their individualism to join the black community, they start thinking that maybe the community isn’t for them. Given all the very real issues facing black America, with incarceration rates and black on black violence and widespread fatherlessness, it’s a bit…bourgeoisie…isn’t it, to finger the rugged black individualist, in his three piece business suit and Park Avenue address, as the Destroyer of Black America?
Gilchrist should heed his own words: Treating [this discussion] as a situation where you either “help yourself” or “get no help” is the only sure-fire way for Black people in this country to decline into a non-recoverable state of inactive irrelevance.
With that, let’s call off this go-nowhere debate between individualism v. community. There are lots of blacks who think of nothing but themselves, but by the virtue of their very selfishness and ruthlessness, open doors for other blacks to make money being selfish and ruthless (or, as we call them on the conservative side, being “capitalists”). There are lots of black people talking reparations and equality and brotherhood and community who don’t know where their own children live. I don’t see how judging either of them helps make anyone’s life any better.
Everything black individuals do in America affects the black community. A black man works his way to the top, shows people it can be done, and that alone sends the elevator down for others. This need not entail buying into the whole center-Left agenda, nor abandoning one’s individuality for “the greater good.” It requires only the understanding of something that no black man, no matter how individualistic or conservative, could ever evade:
a black doctor jogging in Central Park is still a…