Systemic Barriers or Personal Responsibility?

March 18, 2014

By Edward Chisolm


With the recent pledge by our President to help raise money for “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative to assist black and Hispanic males, and the comments made by the Republic Budget Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan, who talked about a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work,” it has set up a classic discussion about race, class and politics in this country.  This is not new!  On the surface, the two aforementioned perspectives do coincide with one another.


Ryan is correct about one thing—far too many men (males) of color are isolated and marginalized from mainstream America.  It is said that Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman, Marcia Fudge, was “troubled and offended” by Ryan’s comments.  My question is why?  Is Ms. Fudge offended by Congressman Ryan, a white man, speaking a reality he thinks is true about black inner-city life, or is she offended by the fact that a lot of black men do not take care of their children, don’t aspire to have gainful employment, and could care less about the black family and/or community.


The Bible speaks of a good man leaving an inheritance to his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22)—a two generation approach!  Far too many brothers are committed to a life of crime and ineptness.  Isn’t that kind of the point and justification for “My Brother’s Keeper?”  If we have to be offended, let’s be offended at the notion that racism is global and structural, as well as it is personal.  For me, the dichotomy between personal responsibility and structural barriers is real. 


Structural inequality is defined as a condition where one group of people is attributed an unequal status to other categories of people.  Institutional racism describes any kind of unequal system based on race.  I am not sure what type of “productive conversation” Ryan wants to have with the Congressional Black Caucus about poverty, but if it doesn’t include how to eliminate systemic racial barriers then I don’t know if anything constructive will get done.  We also seem to leave the debate at the personal level. This is where it seems My Brother’s Keeper is going with it.  If we can just get these black and Hispanic boys and men to behave better, everything will work itself out.  Maybe.  All I know is that $200 million is a lot of money, and if it is not allocated wisely it will prove, once again, to be not enough.


If we are to believe the conservatives spin on the issue, the federal government spent roughly $668.2 billion on 126 separate federal programs to fight poverty.  If this is anywhere near true, then it makes Ms. Fudge’s point that the main culprit behind poverty is “lack of resources.” Really?  If billions didn’t put a dent in the problem then how will $200 million work out for us?  But every little bit helps.  Right? Also, I am just wondering (out loud) how much we need to spend on tearing down the walls and barriers that keep poor people trapped in poverty.  Which of those foundations or private donors will step up and put their resources there?


Structural racism gets a pass sometimes because we put a microscope underneath what the “person” should do to act responsibly.  My question is, “When will we have a “serious” conversation about racism, classism, sexism and poverty from a structural inequality point of view?  It is an easier talk to have when we focus on the people in poverty because we can always default to blaming the victim. When we are courageous enough to have that conversation, I suspect we will affirm Ryan’s point that both black and brown boys suffer from isolation and marginalization. 


The conversation will also affirm that those who hold the true power are also isolated.  They are isolated from the day-to-day struggles of the working poor and the entities in place to help.  They are isolated not because they don’t know, but because they don’t care.  My fear is we will spend a lot of good money ($200 million and holding), get more black and brown boys to act better, but still not get the core issue that helped to put them in their impoverished situation in the first place. 

There is no debate (or shouldn’t be) that structural inequality has a detrimental effect on black life.  Inequality has nothing to do with feelings per se.  It is more insidious than even hatred.  It’s not a matter of either personal responsibility or systemic barriers—it’s both.  It takes both to contribute to inner-city life for far too many black boys, and it will take addressing both to solve the problem.