I live in North Minneapolis with my husband. This part of the city is an interesting one for many reasons. A good chunk of the African American community in Minneapolis lives in this part of town which makes it one of the few places in Minnesota where a black person doesn’t feel out of place in a sea of white.
While North is fairly lower middle class, there are sections of the area that are pockets of poverty and crime, especially those areas closest to downtown. North Minneapolis tends to be the place where a lot of the crime in the city takes place (not all the crime, but a sizable number).
As I run around to do errands in the area, I can’t help but observe how people act. Being a middle-class black man, I was raised to act a certain way. How I acted in public mattered. Don’t yell. Say please and thank you. Don’t interrupt. That behavior extended in how I treated others. I can remember Mom saying she hoped I never got a girl pregnant, but she wanted me to be willing to take up the responsibilities of parenting.
That’s not what I always see on display in North Minneapolis. I see mothers dragging their children all the while yelling at them. Kids not using their inside voices. People interrupting each other.
When I see these things I get a sense of frustration. Why can’t these folks act right? I always get the feeling my bitching is wrong, but it’s hard for me not to say something when people are acting the exact opposite that you were taught.
This probably puts me in the same boat, sort of, as former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani who got into trouble in late November for his remarks that basically blamed blacks for the amount of cops in African American areas. The mayor was using the standard argument on the Right that elevates behavior over outside factors.
Being at least tangentially a Republican, the whole behavior thing is something that resonates with me deeply. That message of personal responsibility has not always resonated with some African Americans who tend to believe the main problems are economic and not cultural. And I have always maintained that some sense self-control and right behavior are needed to help us move forward.
But as an African American, there is another side of this. It’s not so simple as shaping up when it comes to some of the many barriers African Americans face. Behavior matters, but so does poverty and racism. I learned this having grown up as I have in Flint, Michigan, where poverty is rampant after years of job losses in the auto industry.
In the current political landscape, this argument is one that comes up rather often. Conservatives tend to think a lot of the crime that takes place in black communities is something that blacks have to take care of. Liberals tend to think the problem is systemic racism and lack of economic opportunity.
In light of the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there has been some talk about behavior. Why did Michael Brown walk in the middle of the street? Why did he sass back at Darren Wilson? Why did Eric Garner get so upset? Why could he listen to the cops?
Some of these questions are valid and they are questions I have thought about. As someone that learned to be respectful to others, the notion of walking in the middle of the street or reaching in a cop car makes no sense.
Most conservatives would see this as proof positive that blacks need to start learning some manners. Maybe if Brown obeyed Wilson when asked he would still be alive today.
But for me, a black conservative, I know that behavior doesn’t take place in a vacuum. If you are a black young man that has been harrassed by cops and other authority figures, you might not want to be obedient to law enforcement. If you learned that you have to speak loudly to be heard, then you tend to not hear people who suggest you tone it down. If you never see people who go to work daily, you aren’t going to understand why you have to be at work everyday. If you don’t have much education and very little prospect for a good paying job, you might resort to selling loose cigarettes to make ends meet. None of these are good behaviors and they should not be celebrated as such. But I think most white conservatives are blind to the factors that make poor African Americans act the way they do.
I’m not suggesting that conservatives give up their concerns over culture and behavior. I tend to think liberals have done this for the last 50 years; spending money to focus on economics , but not touching culture and behavior. I don’t think it has uplifted the black community anymore than conservative scolds.
I haven’t said much about race. Contrary to white conservatives, racism didn’t end in 1965. Race relations in this country are far better than they were 50 years ago. But racism is there, mostly in the background, but every present.
What I wish for white conservatives like Guiliani is that they actually listen to African Americans. We are not all Al Sharptons. Most African Americans rich and poor, want to raise their children with good morals. But it is hard to do that with barriers in your way.
Most white conservatives are not racist, but most are clueless. It’s time for them to keep quiet and listen before they open their mouths.