Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Corrupting the work ethic

Following is a brief excerpt from Black Men: They Could be Heroes - Part 1, originally published in the Summer 1993 hard copy edition of Issues & Views, now on the I&V website. It takes a look at attitudes among the black middle class, those elites who had already begun to increase in numbers long before slavery ended.

Among blacks, the undiluted pretentiousness of this elite was legendary and had already become the stuff of humor and ridicule, long before it was incisively chronicled in the 1940s and 1950s by the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. From earliest times, it is members of this elite, more concerned with image and immediate gratification than with the task of building, who have sent forth signals that have contributed to undermining the work ethic among the poor. Such signals are still sent forth today.

Zealous in their own desires to avoid the prospect of menial labor, they encourage the poor to disdain "dead end" jobs and to hold out for "meaningful work." On a practical level, the unemployed poor also play important roles as symbols. Held as hostages in the war against the "system," they can be publicly displayed as more victims of "racism," a situation best dealt with by devising more and more social programs. The message of the elite has taken firm root in the culture of the poor.

In an 1989 interview, George Waters, director of EDTEC, an organization in Camden, New Jersey, that teaches entrepreneurial skills to youth, described the greatest obstacle to youngsters' success as "attitude." Waters said, "We're up against bad, unproductive attitudes toward work, which have been instilled into these youngsters, not only by their peers on the streets, but also by parents who actually tell their kids that working for fast food wages is beneath them. . . . There are adults who actually pass such notions on to kids."

In another era, before the corrupt views of the elite achieved
dominance, the humblest blacks believed what economist Thomas Sowell teaches, that there is no such thing as a dead end job—that it is up to the individual to turn every work experience into a chance to either learn skills, or improve work habits, or position oneself for achieving still higher goals.

Clifton Taulbert demonstrates this spirit in his memoirs of his southern childhood and youth. He is author of two books that celebrate the character and moral fiber of the citizens of his segregated home town of Glen Allen, Mississippi, where he grew up in the 1950s. In the 1960s, like other young people in the region, he struck out for St. Louis, where social change was just beginning to stir, and where he landed a job as a dishwasher in a major restaurant. Back home, Taulbert had been part of a poor, but close family, for whom work was an imperative and the expected norm. He had grown up with people who instilled within him an ambition to succeed. In his second book, The Last Train North, he describes the dish washing job, and how his days were filled with "grease and soap suds."

What is important is his attitude toward that job. He saw it as a way to pay his share of expenses to the relatives in St. Louis with whom he lived. He spent his spare time diligently searching employment ads and going on interviews arranged by an agency. He says, "I washed those pots and pans with an intensity, because I was determined to wash my way out of that grease room." And, indeed, he did wash his way out, and went on to become a successful businessman. Today he would be discouraged from ever taking that first lowly "degrading" position.

Taulbert's life had been surrounded not by people who fed him defeatist notions, but by those from whom he drew inspiration. He writes, "My family down South had dreamed of better things for me and I could not let them down. The stack of pots filled that washroom, but memories of southern voices crowded into that little room with us, and enabled me to look beyond."

Disdain for Small Businesses

In interviews, members of today's black elite make clear that even little mom and pop ventures are to be avoided, since they are not "viable" businesses that can produce the high incomes to which they would like to become accustomed. Busy as members of this class are with trying to break through those glass ceilings in white corporations, in their quest for higher level positions, they cannot summon the concern to help those on the lowest rungs find the economic means to create these smaller enterprises.

A recent publication from a black Washington, DC, "think tank" offers a brief historical survey of American black business, and then condescendingly dismisses the many small businesses that were formed. The article laments that, "The blacks who were lured into the world of business in the 1920s were typically not the ones who were highly educated," and goes on to imply that since such businesses were not created by the more affluent and did not grow beyond a limited size, they were hardly worth noting. Get it? Those thousands of black-owned businesses that were created by the humblest people, and had sustained families and employed children, were not the "viable" kind that would be acceptable to the needs of the better classes. ...

Sociologist Nathan Hare writes, "Members of the black middle class essentially occupy a parasitic relationship to the black underclass." Consumed primarily with a quest for recognition and validation, they derive satisfaction only to the degree that the white world grants them "here a news anchor [job], there a distributorship." Television journalist Tony Brown, in his syndicated column, regularly berates members of this class for neglecting to take up their responsibility to lead with their money instead of with rhetoric and bluster. He views their indifference as the true waste in the black community. Brown
claims that the only role played by the middle class is as "managers of resources allocated by government and corporate programs." They are, in effect, overseers of the bounty. He charges them with acknowledging a connection to the race, in order to "pick up their affirmative action paychecks."

Complete article here.

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