Why the concepts of “Personal Responsibility” and “Self-Sufficiency” hurt black communities

Y’know…a lot of the time, people tell poor, high-crime black communities that they need to take responsibility for the crime that occurs there. They encourage self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.
What if a sense of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility is more of a problem than a solution?

Here’s what I mean: when I look at the history of black communities, and of attitudes encouraged by white American society regarding them, it seems clear to me that all along, white society has strongly encouraged black culture to take a crabs-in-the-barrel approach to life. During slavery, they had slaves compete against each other, a tradition that continued through the early twentieth century…and arguably exists in sports rivalries today. For whatever reason, white America has gotten a thrill out of putting black people in a hole and encouraging them to fight each other, to demean each other, to climb over each other in an attempt to get to the top.

I’m not saying black crimes are white people’s fault, necessarily. But what I am saying is that the mentality that may be required to lower black crime may be the exact opposite of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that, when encouraged, is actually the attitude of “I get mine, and if you didn’t work hard enough, you don’t deserve what I got” — basically, the crabs in the barrel approach that has been pushed onto black people for centuries.

The more useful attitude might be an openness, not to demean your neighbor if they don’t accomplish as much as you, but to help your neighbor. Not personal responsibility, but communal responsibility.
Oftentimes I hear white people encourage communal responsibility among black communities, and say that what’s wrong is that black people don’t take control of their own communities. This is often a segueway into the personal responsibility argument that encourages a crabs-in-the-barrel approach, because it actually embodies the basic us-vs-them approach it is supposedly trying to discourage. In other words, it’s saying that black people need to take communal responsibility, while at the same time — in that very statement — refusing to take any communal responsibility yourself.

I’m not saying that it’s up to white people to model the way black communities should behave. That would still be reinforcing the divide. I’m saying that the us-vs.-them attitude may be the problem. The key may be for us all — regardless of skin tone — to discard the concept of personal responsibility for one much more universal.

The crabs at the bottom of the barrel do not need lessons on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. The solution is interdependency, integration, and an attitude towards more universal betterment.
My point is that the solution often proposed to black people may actually be the problem. If the problem behind high murder and rape rates is that we have a crabs-in-the-barrel mentality, then you’re just encouraging the problem by encouraging self-sufficiency and separation as opposed to interdependency and integration, and by encouraging personal responsibility that isolates the individual and encourages competition instead of communal responsibility — not communal responsibility that fosters an us-and-them mentality, but a “we’re all in this together” mentality that, at the same time, recognizes contextual differences in the pursuit of a goal of universal improvement.

And I want to go the next step and say that this is not just the solution to the problem, but a principle: we should care about each other. We should realize we’re all in this existence together. We should focus on universal opportunity and helping each other. And to the extent that we do not, we struggle. True, a few people will get ahead, but the masses will struggle under ever-widening inequality, because that’s the way the us-vs.-them system would work, by design.

I’m not saying that black people are incapable of loving themselves, or incapable of creating community. But it is also true that it is difficult to do so when you are looked down on by the majority of the population, and that the insecure competitiveness felt in many black communities runs fairly deep due to societal characteristics baked in by 400 years of history. By saying that they were better than blacks, white people created a hierarchy, and that hierarchy continued to have layers in black culture that contributed to (even if it wasn’t the only cause of) black infighting for a less torturous spot.
The problem is the hierarchy. And it’s hypocritical to encourage black groups to give up their jockeying for higher spots in the hierarchy when white groups are not giving up theirs, and are trying to preserve it with an us-and-them mentality long after race-based segregation was outlawed.

Cooperation, integration, and a more extensive sense of communal responsibility — not patronizing in a way that reconstructs hierarchies, but one that takes the form of solutions enacted by blacks and whites that respects the experiences of the most marginalized groups most seriously — seems to be the key here towards ending a crabs-in-the-barrel situation.
Personal responsibility and self-sufficiency are concepts, I think, that do just the opposite.

PS: I want to thank all 34 of my patrons for making posts like these possible.

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