Today I’d like to share an essay titled “I Feel Good to Be a Black Male” that I previously transcribed from the book Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, edited by Katharine Washburn and John Thornton. This essay was written by Armstrong Williams and was originally included in his book Beyond Blame: How We Can Succeed by Breaking the Dependency Barrier (1995), which I have not read in full. The argument offered up in this essay, written as part of an exchange of letters between Williams and a young black American named Brad, remains timely and relevant for today’s young and older people alike, irregardless of race, because we’re all today mired in the perverted cultural influences that blind us from confronting the hypocrisy in who we claim to be versus how we’re living. This is a very good read I’d love to pass on to parents and youths alike in order to open up discussion on the topics contained therein.
When we first met, you said you regretted your life as a street hustler and that you would make different choices if you could live your life over again. When I asked why you stopped hustling, you explained, “What really made me stop was the guys who kidnapped me.” I guess I should be shocked at your reaction, but I am not. It was not until hustling became too dangerous for you that you stopped. You do not regret having used women; you are only sorry that you risked getting AIDS. Even when you talk of providing for your children, you seem to be motivated mostly by the fact that you are embarrassed. That is why I was so convinced that you were completely sincere when you said you wished to start a new life: you had decided that hustling is no longer in your best interest. From your perspective, the equation was simple: right equals whatever is good for Brad Howard. Today that means getting a good job and starting a career. Yesterday it meant selling drugs. Even now you can announce without irony, “I feel good to be a black male.”
In some sense, I cannot fault you for your views. Like many other young people, you spent twelve years in school, but you got an attitude adjustment instead of an education. You were taught to feel good about yourself and to be proud of who you are, no matter what. On the surface, the idea seems sensible enough: young African Americans do not succeed because they are not taught that they can succeed. For the past thirty years, education experts have noted that young black people like you are constantly bombarded by negative images of black men and women on television, in the movies, and in your neighborhoods. They have also pushed the idea that these images are holding you back. So instead of rewarding real success and discouraging failure, they decided to bolster your self-esteem. But rather than building self-esteem, educators have taught a generation of young people to parrot the phrases of “empowerment.” Almost without exception, every young African American I have met says he is proud of himself. Even you are proud. And almost without exception, all of those young people cannot answer the simple question, “Why are you proud of yourself?”
Educators have ignored the obvious fact that real self-esteem comes only from real accomplishments. Without real accomplishments the phrases you repeat are just empty words. What is worse, words like pride, courage, and respect have lost their meaning to young people raised on a diet of self-esteem. Just as obscenities no longer shock, the vocabulary of self-esteem no longer inspires. With every accomplishment, no matter how small, now treated as equally important, young people are losing respect for real achievements.
The popularity of Malcolm X is a good example of what this education has done. In my previous letter, I referred to to Malcolm’s insights on street hustlers. I hoped that his ideas would carry weight because you, like most other African Americans, say you respect him. But let me suggest that you probably shouldn’t respect Malcolm, at least not for the reasons you think. I believe Malcolm X is the most misunderstood black hero in America. As one young looter during the L.A. riots said on Nightline, “King—King fought for peace, but you don’t get nothing by just talking. I believe in Malcolm X’s way. I don’t believe in turning the cheek. We’ve been turning the cheek for far too long. Now it’s time for retaliation.” From political leaders to street hustlers to rap singers, Malcolm is lionized for one phrase: “By any means necessary.” It has become the battle cry of every black politician who wants to stir up his constituents. Although I disagree with much of what Malcolm believed, I am profoundly saddened that this man’s life and all he stood for has been reduced to a slogan on a T-shirt and a way to justify violence.
There is much about Malcolm X’s life that deserves respect. Like you, he began as a street hustler and a thief. But instead of making excuses for his behavior, he turned his life around. It is true that he talked of liberating African Americans “by any means necessary,” but what were those means? He demanded abstinence from premarital sex and alcohol. He required his followers to study intensely. He did not tolerate drugs—either using or selling them; he called them poison. He condemned the lust for the material things you covet. Malcolm’s message is perfectly clear: stop selling drugs, stop living in sin, take responsibility for your children, do not smoke or drink, work hard and study harder. As Malcolm would quickly explain, those are the “means” that are necessary.
Instead, Malcolm’s misguided modern followers like to think he justified violence. To my knowledge, nothing Malcolm ever said or did could reasonably be used to justify the sort of street hustler violence that rap singers and high school cowards so admire. As I mentioned in my last letter, Malcolm wrote that your sort of violence “scared” him. I wonder if the young African Americans I see walking around Washington with Malcolm X’s image in their backs have ever tried, or even know how, to live the kind of life he demanded. I disagree with many of Malcolm’s views. He believed that America is a hopelessly racist country in which black people will never succeed. He believed it is better for black people to separate themselves from the larger culture and viewed the whole idea of integration as a white scam. I know from my own experience that he was wrong on both counts. But I do know that he was right in first insisting that anyone who wants to improve society must first look at the man in the mirror. Humans are social creatures, and you are the element of society you are responsible for. How do you treat your neighbors? By selling drugs to them? Using them for sex? Occasionally offing one? You can’t condemn the corruption or flaws of a society when you spend your time helping to destroy it. You can do the most to improve society by improving yourself.
The moral demands Malcolm X placed on himself and his followers are more than admirable; they are what is most essential to improve the lot of each black brother and sister in America. But it is also the most difficult thing in the world to change. It is much easier to point out the mite in the eye of the rest of the world than to deal with the plank in our own.
In many ways, he and Martin Luther King, Jr., had more in common than most young people realize. Like Malcolm, Dr. King was a deeply religious man who demanded much from himself and those who followed him. Dr. King and Malcolm X both realized that self-esteem comes from self-respect, and that both have to be earned through hard work and a dedication to living a moral life. How far we have moved away from those principles! Today the “civil rights establishment” is all about what kind of special treatment America owes blacks as a result of its racist past, rather than about what we can do to get beyond that. We push for a legalized racial spoils system called affirmative action, which, in principle, is just another shade of the old Jim Crow laws. We talk about “reparations.” From whom? People who never held slaves. For whom? People who never were slaves.
Meanwhile, we set up our own children for bitter disappointment by trying to fill them up with empty self-esteem. We think that if we teach kids to feel good about themselves, perhaps real accomplishments will follow. That approach is exactly backward. Both Malcolm and Dr. King would have agreed that each of us should understand our own inherent worth as beloved children of God. Beyond that, both would measure a man or woman by how hard he or she struggles to follow God’s laws and improve himself or herself. Esteem is a high regard or opinion for someone. Real self-esteem comes from making oneself worthy to be esteemed, but today it is in fashion to teach young people that just showing up is enough. Our children are in for an awful shock if we send them into the world with a baseless high regard for themselves.
I know that many black leaders disagree with me. Many believe that the history of victimization puts children at an emotional disadvantage that needs to be countered with as much positive encouragement as possible. They also believe that planting the seeds of self-esteem at an early age is necessary to counter the negative attitudes and experiences of racism they are likely to encounter. These people do have a point: many young black children have a hard time finding positive role models, and American culture is often willing to ignore the contributions African Americans have made. When I did a program on the D-Day invasion, for example, I had on my radio program my friend and mentor Senator Strom Thurmond, who had fought in World War II. Many people called the station afterward to criticize me for not bringing black war heroes on my show. At one level, I was distressed that so many of my listeners still see everything, even the anniversary of this historic day, in racial terms. On another level, though, I could appreciate their desire to publicize the accomplishments of black Americans. But even as I agree with this desire, I have to note that none of it makes a bit of difference when it comes to the philosophy of self-esteem.
Even if our history textbooks and newspapers were filled with the accomplishments of black Americans, it would not build genuine self-esteem among young African Americans. Imagine how silly it would sound if white people went around saying: “I am a personal success because I am white and Leonardo da Vinci was white.” Anyone who made such a statement would be dismissed as an idiot by all of the white people I know. Yet this is precisely what black intellectuals have accomplished by teaching self-esteem to black children. Our young people are encouraged to believe that the heroic efforts of Harriet Tubman make them better people. Please. Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments made her a good person. That is all. If we want young African Americans to feel good about themselves, we should teach them calculus in high school and reward them when they put forward the effort and perform to the best of their abilities. Worst of all, habituating children to maintain an unearned sense of self-satisfaction destroys the best incentive for real accomplishment and discourages the motivation that leads to all real achievement.
I am barely old enough to recall the time when we first heard that black was beautiful. In the early 1960s black America was just beginning to emerge from the legacy of Jim Crow. In the South blacks attended separate schools, drank out of separate drinking fountains, used separate toilets, and ate in separate restaurants. Whites made sure these accommodations were separate because they did not want to be soiled by the black people around them. Everywhere I turned were signs that America believed African Americans were dirty, unworthy, and somehow less than fully human. In the early 1960s, our parents’ generation rebelled against these attitudes and asserted our humanity. Back then when black people began saying “Black is beautiful,” they meant that black is no less beautiful than white, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Today that phrase has been perverted to mean that being black is, in itself, enough to make you good and worthy.
I have often wondered why people of our race embraced this philosophy so quickly and completely. It is not as though some charismatic African-American leader persuaded the public that false pride was the true salvation of the black race. From Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, every true black leader has stressed the principles of self-discipline and hard work. They have rightly objected to white America’s refusal to acknowledge our accomplishments and virtues, but they never suggested that being black is a virtue. Perhaps the answer is as simple as your own life suggests: making race a virtue is far easier than trying to instill true virtues in our young people. Whatever the reason, the effort that began as a way to eliminate prejudice against African Americans has become the anchor of false pride.
This educational fad for self-esteem training, like so many other social and educational experiments performed on young Americans school children, has backfired. Well-intentioned people have used American children, and especially African Americans like you, as a proving ground for new ideas. I am sickened when I think about the criminal justice reforms that dumped hundreds of thousands of violent criminals back into black neighborhoods in the name of rehabilitation, or the mental health reforms that dumped legions of former mental patients into those same neighborhoods, or poorly conceived and executed welfare programs that have encouraged the breakdown of poor families. Young African Americans are always the first to get free condoms in schools, free needles for drug addicts, and subsidized abortions for teens. It is as if society says to itself, “Why not try it in the inner city? After all, things can’t get much worse there.” But the experience of the past several decades indicates clearly that life can get worse even in the worst neighborhoods. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in America—white or black—who would not trade the illegitimacy rates of today for the rates in 1960, or the crimes today for the crime rates in 1960, back when laws and attitudes were much more racist than they are today.
Political leaders, both black and white, have not been content merely to eliminate the obstacles to black success. They have sought to engineer our future—and just below all of that engineering lies the assumption that black people cannot handle this future without the help of government. It is this condescending “compassion” and enervating assistance, much more than overt hostility, that has sucked the marrow of black communities of America.
Through the curriculum of self-esteem we have made a policy of pretending that any accomplishment, no matter how trivial, is worthy of praise. In doing so we have undermined the value of real success. That same curriculum pretends that failure does not exist except in the most extreme cases. Your life serves as a clear, if unfortunate, example of this trend. Just by showing up to school each morning more or less regularly for twelve years, you received a high school diploma. I do not mean to offend you when I say that you should have learned a great deal more in twelve years of school than you did, and if you refused to learn you should have failed. Instead the educators who were paid to teach you academic subjects taught you that almost any fault can be overlooked and almost any effort is sufficient. No wonder you find it difficult to summon the discipline required to stay off the streets; you were never even required to finish your homework.
Sometimes this idea of hollow success produces some tragically ludicrous scenes. Each year, the mayor of Washington and other national luminaries hold a luncheon to “honor” a handful of girls who have “learned to practice self-respect and self-control” by agreeing not to have sex while they are enrolled in a program to promote abstinence. This past year the luncheon was attended by some of the nation’s most influential women, including the vice president’s wife, the wife of Virginia’s governor, and the reigning Miss America. These 173 teen and preteen girls are being honored for the profound accomplishment of remaining virgins while they are in the program. I think many people must have been amused, as I was, by the entire spectacle. There stood the mayor of our nation’s capital and many of the most important women in the nation appreciatively unveiling the last 173 teenaged virgins in the Washington area.
Talk about meaningless self-esteem! Now, teaching sexual restraint to kids is both admirable and necessary. But most professors of, say, physics are never honored with a luncheon organized by such luminaries. For young African-American girls, however, just keeping their pants on through high school earns them this honor. Honoring these girls undermines years of struggle against prejudice by admitting, in effect, that most young African Americans are no more able to control their sexual urges than most animals. The racist impulse in white America is reinforced by these displays. Once again, well-intentioned public figures had announced to the world that African Americans should not be held to the same standards of self-discipline and self-control we expect from others in our society. For blacks, they seem to say, retaining one’s virginity through most (though not all) of their teenage years is nothing short of heroic, and it deserves the personal attention of Miss America, the wife of the vice president, and the highest elected official of our nation’s capital.
If the curriculum of self-esteem robs young people of the drive to succeed, its twin, the philosophy of blame, provides them with an excuse for almost any failure. Together they comprise a philosophic outlook that says, “All my actions are worthy; all my deficiencies are the fault of others.” Our culture of victimization has become so accepted that when it is occasionally put on public display, few people realize just how absurd it all sounds. I recall African-American leaders, such as Representative Maxine Waters, who defended rioters during the Los Angeles riots on the basis of “joblessness and despair.” They agreed that the entire riot was unfortunate but a natural reaction to racism. During the NAACP’s ill-conceived gang summit in 1992, Ben Chavis invited street hustlers and murderers to justify selling drugs as a natural reaction to their lack of “hope.” Even child abuse in poor black families is excused as the result of the “frustration” poor African-American parents feel. If you are poor and black in America, there is no crime you can commit, no boundary you can cross, that cannot be excused on account of poverty, racism, or general psychological stress.
It does not take much for this philosophy to give way to the kind of selfishness I see in young hustlers such as yourself. After all, if nothing is your fault, then you have no faults. If anything you do can be explained and justified by forces beyond your control, then there is no reason to control your impulses. After a time, the idea that anything one does can be justified gives way to the notion that nothing you do even needs to be justified—at least not to anyone but yourself. It does not take long for the values your parents taught to vanish. This false pride is combined with the constant focus on the “self” in self-esteem to help create the sort of self-centered attitude I see in you. I have to wonder if your days as a street hustler are what those same political leaders have in mind when they proclaim that the eighties were a decade of selfishness and greed. Probably not.
As I look back on my own life, I realize that I was fortunate to have been raised as I was. I grew up on a farm in Marion, South Car0lina. It seemed all we did was work. We were up at the break of dawn, feeding the cattle, slopping the pigs, or tending to the fields. I recall one summer day when I had to bring in the tobacco from the fields. It had rained the night before, and by midday the heat and the humidity seemed unbearable. My father had given me several rows of tobacco to finish. When I whined and told him that it was too much, he bent down and explained to me, “Those are your rows. They are yours to do. If you don’t make it through those rows, you won’t make it through life.”
Those rows of tobacco seemed endless. But I knew my father, and I knew that he would not listen to any further complaints, so I got back to work. At that moment I hated the work, and I was angry with my father for making me do it. Between plants I would stop to rest for a few seconds, but that only prolonged my time in the sun. The dust clouded my eyes and got in my clothes. My hair was matted by the dirt and the sweat, and my head pounded in the heat. If it had been an option, I probably would have quit, but I did not have a choice. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the end of the last row. I looked over to my father. He did not say anything; he just smiled and walking with me to the tobacco barn. I knew he was proud of me—not because I was able to work in the tobacco fields but because I did not quit.
That afternoon I learned that self-respect grows out of little victories. My father was like that. He placed the greatest importance in the smallest things. From getting good grades in math to finishing my chores, he viewed almost everything in the context of a larger picture. Every life is made up of those small decisions, those little victories and defeats, that we deal with every day. Every little, unheralded choice is a piece of the bigger picture—the general direction your life will take. If we are not faithful in the little things, then we cannot be faithful in the larger things. That is why he did not cut slack for my little slips and failings. He felt a great responsibility as our father. As important, he had a keen insight into character—both how it is formed and the role it plays in our lives. It is this insight that he has passed along to me, and which I am now trying to pass on to you.
Getting up, going to work, giving everything your best effort: these are the foundation of real character and, consequently, real self-esteem. My work in the fields does not seem like much now, but the self-respect I gained by completing those rows of tobacco was genuine. Although I would never have finished my chore if my father had not demanded it, the accomplishment was still mine. Looking back on it, I think I felt better about finishing those rows of tobacco than I did graduating from college. In many respects, I think finishing those rows was far more important to the success I enjoy today.
I wonder how differently I might have approached my life if my father had said on that hot summer day, “Don’t worry about it, Armstrong. It is good enough that you came out here to the fields to try. You should be proud of that.” Even as I write those words, I realize how ridiculous they are. My father knew better. Yet every day teachers, parents, and politicians say those very words to people like you. When your father bought you a car and continued your monthly allowance even though you were hustling, he was telling you that just showing up was good enough. When your parents put up their house as collateral so they could bail you out of jail and then stood silent as you continued to deal drugs, they were telling you that just showing up was good enough. When your school gave you a high school diploma even though you can barely speak basic English they were telling you that just showing up was good enough. And when your girlfriend and newborn daughter stayed with you even though you were running around with other women, she too was telling you that just showing up was good enough. These people who never demand anything from you say they are trying to help, but all the while they are robbing you of an opportunity to earn even the most modest real self-respect.
While the philosophy of self-esteem prevents many young people from gaining self-respect, it also robs others of the respect they have earned. You said to me, “I had a lot of respect on the street.” I would have laughed at that comment except that I have heard so many young people say they “respect” street hustlers. As Malcolm X observed of his time on the streets, the highest respect goes to the most reckless and vicious hoodlum—the “craziest nigger.” The virtues normal society encourages in its members are twisted to fit the hustling lifestyle and then held up to younger and less reckless hustlers as a model. Courage becomes recklessness. Independence is reduced to contempt. Ambition and drive are transformed into selfishness and greed. Bravery becomes self-destruction. The words, and the world, are turned upside down, and many young people do not even know it.
In this world, there is no room to recognize real courage, drive, ambition, or independence. So while other young people you knew were busy admiring your fancy cars and your ghetto courage, they were ignoring or ridiculing people who worked in so-called dead-end jobs. Without a moral compass to help them distinguish between real and empty accomplishments, they looked only at the material results of each. Because so few young people are taught the real meaning of dignity, they think the peculiar power wielded by the street hustler has earned him respect. Young people see hustlers like you acting as petty lords: issuing commands, demanding homage from your lieutenants, even setting and enforcing your own legal code. As you bragged to me, you were able to have someone killed if you wished; you “had a lot of power.” Thanks to millions of men who have abandoned their children, many young African Americans who grow up in the city will be exposed to your kind of power and respect, and it is the only example they will ever see.
You should have known better. Even while he was making it easy for you to do the wrong thing, your own father was living a life that deserves real respect. To this day, you say you respect your father. Why? What about him do you respect? Your father is just another working-class black man stuck in a job that is going nowhere. He has spent all of his life working, and what has he gotten for it? Unlike you, your father would never get the respect of your former friends on the street. Unlike you, your father would never have women lining up to win his affections. Unlike you, your father would never be able to tell someone in his “crew” to “take care of” one of his enemies. By the measure of the street thug, you, Brad, had a lot of power; your father has none. If he were not your own father, I think you might call him a chump.
Still, you are beginning to understand that his wasn’t a dead-end job but an opportunity to provide an honest living. Even with all your money and your “power,” you could never earn his respect, and you could never re-create the dignity that he has. That, Brad, is why you and your brother were dead to him. You had lost his respect.
I think your young admirers would be surprised if they knew the truth about you and your father. He can see right through your false pride, your empty success, and your recklessness. Teenagers in the ghetto think that hustlers who carry guns and face death are courageous. Only you knew how scared you really were. You told me about it, but you could never tell your boys back home about it. For them, you have to put up a front, put on a show, because your life depends on the face you show. Living as a predator, living with predators, any sign of weakness is fatal. So you and all your friends live on the edge of the abyss day in and day out, never looking down, pretending not to notice. Inside, this life eats you up, which is why you said you wanted out. Yet looking back on your life, even you admit that you took the easy way out. As dangerous as dealing drugs could be, it was much easier to live for yourself, for the moment and for the money, than to take responsibility for your actions and live as your father did: working hard, providing for your children, reining in your impulses. Even today, it is difficult for you to face the struggle and real sacrifices that such a life requires. Unlike carrying a gun and walking the streets, living a respectable life demands genuine courage.
I warned you in my last letter that you will not get much encouragement as you try to change your life. One clear reason is that by rejecting the false pride that has anchored you in the past, you are announcing to your former friends that they are not leading good lives. By changing, you are implicitly holding them accountable for still leading that life and condemning the damage they do. To make matters tougher, you must turn away from the streets in shame rather than victory. You should feel bad about the way you have lived. You should be ashamed of how you have wasted the opportunities people have given you. You should be ashamed and embarrassed by the way you used women. You should lose your false self-respect, and along with it you should lose forever the hollow respect you had for your street hustler friends. None of this is easy to do. It is a very hard thing to renounce your past, because you have to assume the heavy responsibility of your actions. But renounce it you must, if you are to have any future at all.
In so doing, you will have achieved one of those small victories talked about earlier. Your decision itself is a real accomplishment. You have given up the streets so you can provide for your children. In exchange, your daughters will see in you a bit of the dignity you admire in your own father. That is no small reward. And if you manage to break from the streets completely, one day you will feel good to be Brad Howard rather than feeling good to be “a black male.”
On one hand I agree very much with the sentiments expressed in the above essay, but, on the other hand, I remain concerned that fewer and fewer options exist for dignified living in the day and age unfolding before us. Because today we no longer farm and most of us do not produce much, if anything, of real value. And today the choice often seems to be between selling your soul to this bidder or that one, with few managing to maintain control over the reins of their productive output and potential. My question is this: is it necessarily any worse to be a ghetto street-hustling thug than to be a Wall Street-hustling thug? Is it more admirable to “whore” oneself out to an employer that considers you expendable and easily replaceable than to take matters into your own hands and carve out an existence, even if within the black market as an actual whore? Because in my view the two sets of options seem very similar. Both are oftentimes about pimping disruptive and damaging bullshit to the public in an effort to line one’s own pockets. The idea of “get yours and don’t worry about the next guy” permeates both gang culture and corporate culture. And until we can reckon with what’s fast becoming a harsh and degrading reality, can such talk be anything more than tribal conflict, in this case between legal means vs. illegal means of providing for oneself? If too often both ‘camps’ lead to soul-selling and a baseless and false sense of self-esteem, then does it not become a toss-up as to which path is better to travel down?
But then again, in the end it winds up being nobody’s fault but ours in terms of how we choose to live our lives. If we rarely study or aim to expand our way of looking at life, can we seriously claim to have worked hard toward positive change? Because there’s much about this life our senses alone can’t inform us of, namely our history—gaining a better grasp on where we’ve come from is essential in figuring out where we might go from here. Yet many people don’t want to learn, they don’t want to think deeply. They want, want, want, but where’s their effort to make it happen? What are we each individually bringing to the table here? That’s an important question all unto itself.