A couple months ago, Bill Cosby made some statements during a speech that said, in effect, that part of the reason that many blacks are still living in the conditions they live in is that they aren't doing what needs to be done (educating themselves, speaking proper English, etc.) and are doing things they shouldn't be doing (buying $500 tennis shoes, having kids too young, etc.) Essentially, he laid part of the responsibility for their "plight" on the shoulders of blacks themselves. Predictably, the reaction has been mixed, both within the black community and outside it.
I, personally, think the message of Mr. Cosby's speech was simple: God helps those who help themselves. I see it as a message of accepting personal responsibility for one's actions as well as the consequences of those actions. I see it as a message of hope because when we accept that we control the actions in our lives, that means we have the power to change our lives. To make something better of it if we're not satisfied. To not wait on others to make things better for us.
Please don't get me wrong. I firmly believes we still need affirmative action type programs. I acknowledge that there is still a whole lot of institutionalized discrimination, not only against blacks, but against all minorities, including women and gays. And yes, every once in a while, a white male is going to suffer from "reverse discrimination". But until we have more than two choices (ie, affirmative action or no affirmative action), the lesser of the two evils is to continue with affirmative action.
Most of us will go out of our way to help someone when they need it. And affirmative action is just that: a helping hand. A way to level out the playing field and to counter the institutionalized discrimination that still exists. But there comes a point in time when we— individually or collectively, as a society— stop being helpful and start enabling. I'm reminded of the saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
Now there are those who will say, "But isn't affirmative action just like giving someone a fish?" I don't see "leveling the playing field" as the equivalent of handing someone a fish. Leveling the playing field is more along the lines of driving them to the pond (where lots of other people are already standing around with buckets of fish beside them), handing them the rod and a baited hook and saying "Ok, catch a fish."
But we can't teach someone to fish if they don't want to learn. We can't teach them to fish if they destroy the ponds were the fish live or if they break all the fishing equipment. I believe Mr. Cosby's remarks were directed towards those blacks who, after being taken to the pond, handed the rod and hook then sell the rod so they can buy kickin' sneakers or break the rod so they can beat someone up with it. These behaviors are self-defeating and until people are aware that they're self-defeating, they're going to keep doing them! There are some blacks who choose not to learn, some that destroy their own neighborhoods (vandalism, drugs use, gang wars), homes and families (gangs, teen pregnancy, etc.) and their opportunities (dropping out of school, wearing clothes/speaking dialects that aren't conducive to getting hired). Yes, it happens in white neighborhoods as well. It happens in Asian neighborhoods and Hispanic neighborhoods. But it's been going on the longest in black communities (probably due simply to the fact that black communities have been around longer in this country than other ethnic minority communities (with the exception of Native Americans, whose "plight" is very similar to that of the black community) and has had a far greater impact on the black community (due to length of time it's been taking place plus the possibility that other ethnic communities have learned from the "mistakes" of black communities.)
The problem of self-defeating attitudes and behaviors is not unique to the black community. As an activist for gay equality I see such self-defeating behavior all the time. And like Mr. Cosby, I will probably be taken to task by members of the gay community for these comments, but I'm making them anyway. Having a pride parade is a great thing. But pride parades are not about saying "We're proud to be gay!" because truth be told we had nothing to do with being gay. Pride parades are more about a way for gays to say "we're not going to allow you to make us feel ashamed or hate ourselves BECAUSE we are gay". In the struggle for gay equality, it's important to at least get others to listen to what we have to say. Not because we have to get a majority of people on our side: civil rights do not (or more accurately, aren't supposed to) depend on majority approval. We need people to listen to us so that we can explain to them why allowing the government to limit the civil rights of gays is dangerous to the civil rights of straights as well. But marching in a pride parade screaming "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" is not conducive to get the other side to listen. Saying "get used to it" is trying to tell someone how to feel and that's not only pointless, it's downright rude! People don't need much of a reason to continue to discriminate, and being aggressively and needlessly confrontational is giving them that reason.
Now, before I get into this next self-defeating issue, let me say this. I recognize that without the drag queens, the gay rights movement might never have gotten off the ground. It certainly wouldn't have started that night in Stonewall. It was the drag queens at Stonewall who must be credited with starting the real push for equality for gays. This is a fact of history and it can no more be denied than the value of the contribution of the drag queens. But the fight for civil rights is like playing a game of chess. Each "piece" in the gay community has their strengths and their weaknesses. And just as in chess, using some pieces when others are called for can cost you the game. Does that mean that the piece is less valuable? No, it doesn't. Does it mean that each piece shouldn't be on the playing board? Not at all. Every piece is necessary to winning the "game".
That said, the gay community has to understand the implications of the fact that many (most?) people in society don't look beyond surface appearances and are more then willing to let their perceptions be dictated by stereotypes. Unlike other minorities, being gay is usually not outwardly obvious. How many gays have been accepted into a group of people until it's revealed that they're gay? That's why so many gays are still in the closet: to come out means to face the very real possibility that you will loose family and/or friends. Maybe even your life. Yet knowing that this is how much of society looks at life, who do we as a community put in the forefront of our gay pride parades? Drag queens. Who does the media focus on? Drag queens. I truly have nothing against drag queens— most of them look far better in a dress than I do. Every drag queen I know has so much self-confidence, is out-going and possesses a great sense of humor. But there can also be no denying that they are on the extremes of the gay community.
Drag queens are entertainers— more often than not, very flamboyant entertainers. They're the gay community's equivalent of Las Vegas showgirls. How many showgirls do you know who are spokespersons for any cause? Maybe the queens aren't looking to be the spokespersons for the gay community— and this is where we have to accept that our actions have consequences we can't escape— but when they're so prominently featured in pride parades, that is exactly what they become: spokespersons. It's not that drag queens don't have opinions worth hearing or logical arguments for gay equality or that they lack intelligence. It's the fact that most of society doesn't look past the costume. They see the drag queens on the evening news and they say something like, "THAT'S why I don't support this gay equality crap! I don't want people like that running around the malls and shopping in stores where I live." And they dismiss whatever words come out of the mouth of the one in costume no matter how much those words need to be heard. And our chance— maybe our only real chance that year— to reach a massive audience is lost.
Self-defeating behavior and actions can only be stopped by the one who is performing them. Whites can't stop those blacks who choose to use improper English during a job interview. Straights can't stop gays from behaving in ways that put people on the defensive and therefore less inclined to listen to what gay advocates are saying. These individuals must stop those behaviors themselves. They must take back control of their lives. They must help themselves. Can we assist them once they've decided to do that? By all means. But until they decide that they ready to learn to fish, all we can really do is to either sit idly by or do what Mr. Cosby did and say "Hey! Wake up! Look at what you're doing to yourself!"
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