“When it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people can't be bothered . . . Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baler or a rapper.”
Three similar quotes, uttered from three different people. But only the author of the first statement – Paul Ryan, the white Republican congressman from Wisconsin – has been branded a racist by the perpetually aggrieved. The other two sources – Democratic President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, respectively – have been praised for their concern for the poor.
Hypocrisy? Of course. But something far more important is also at work here, and this week's release of a report warning of a “national crisis” once again points out the need for honesty, not still more race-baiting hysteria.
The degree to which some people define racism not by what was said but by who said it was exposed last week by, of all people, liberal TV host Bill Maher. During discussion of what Ryan had said earlier last month on a conservative radio talk-show, Maher read Michelle Obama's quote – which quickly silenced the guests who had been slamming Ryan. “Is something less true if a white person says it?” Maher asked.
“(Michelle Obama) was talking to black people," comedian W. Kamau Bell replied.”We talk to each other differently than we talk in front of you.”
True enough. I suspect some white people who do it, too. But what does that lack of consistent honesty say about the country's ability to address the problems outlined in the “Race for Results” report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation?
Based on an index of 12 indicators of success from birth to adulthood with 1,000 points being the highest possible, Asian children scored 776, whites 704, Latinos 404, native Americans 387 and blacks just 345 – a pattern that holds true in nearly every state, it found.
What accounts for that disparity? Some will reflexively blame racism, even though the news accounts I read specifically did not. Unfortunately, indiscriminate charges of racism – even President Obama has suggested his race lowers his approval numbers – make it almost impossible to deal with these or other issues honestly and effectively.
Maher's question was appropriate: A call for increased parental and personal responsibility does not become more or less true, or more or less racist, depending on its source. The transparent silliness of efforts to pretend otherwise would be harmful enough if they bred only cynicism, but the resulting mistrust is potentially much more harmful.
Way back in 1999 I revealed how the United Way of Allen County was urging its member organizations to be more “inclusive” in part by recognizing the impact of “privileges” enjoyed by groups such as white males and Christians, and that while all people are prejudiced, only people in power – whites, in other words – could practice racism.
The director at that time is long gone, and no wonder: Insulting would-be donors is not likely to improve their generosity.
And yet, 15 years later, that “white privilege” nonsense is still alive and well, most recently in a tax-supported conference in which a presenter told Wisconsin public school teachers that “being a white person who does anti-racist work is like being an alcoholic . . . I have to wake up every day and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with (racism) that I have to choose to think in an anti-racist way.”
Insulting potential allies in the war on racism, ignorance and poverty is not likely to improve the lives of children who need real solutions, not shrill rhetoric.
Ryan and the Obamas were right, even if it's politically incorrect for some people to say so. A mountain of evidence shows an undeniable link between absent fathers and poverty, crime, lack of education, poor health and a host of other problems best avoided. Because lasting progress will require us all, frank talk about race must not stop at the color line.
More than 70 percent of black children in America are born to single mothers, and it shouldn't be considered racist to point out that fact, and what it means. It could be considered racist – or at least indifferent — to do otherwise.