Ferguson: Racism or Responsibility?

Government handouts aren't destroying the American spirit. They just might be the only thing that can save it.

When it comes to Ferguson, most people fall on one of two sides. Some say that racism is what keeps putting young, black men at odds with law enforcement. Others say that it's their own irresponsibility that puts them behind bars and gun barrels. But any thinking person knows that both are significant contributors to what it means to be black in America today. The real issue is which one will correct the stigma.

I used to be in the responsibility camp. I thought affirmative action was a tax on being white and welfare was social security for the maturity challenged. When my parents got divorced, I didn't spiral and blame society and circumstance for not handing me satisfaction. I did what all good Americans do: I worked hard and made something of myself. My story is not an excuse because obstacles are made to be overcome.

But there's a difference between obstacles and oppression. No one was working against me. No one was conspiring to ruin my life. Choosing to not let my parents' divorce define me isn't the same as choosing to not let daily prejudice define me. No matter how hard they work, responsible, oppressed people are still oppressed people.

That's why responsibility won't correct the stigma. Racists don't hate blacks because they're irresponsible; they hate them because they're black.

Being a criminal isn't peculiar to the African American community--everyone does that. And everyone expects criminals to take responsibility for themselves and their reintegration back into society. Yet we prescribe the same solution to black people, as if they're all criminals. But if all black people are thieves and vandals, then all white people are serial killers and school shooters. Guilt by association works both ways.

The only way to correct the stigma is to remove our rose-colored glasses: the American Dream is a lie. The American way only works as far as the people in power empower you. This worked out quite well for Protestants early on, but ask Catholics how much "freedom of religion" they ever saw. Likewise, since the birth of our nation, the deck has been stacked against African Americans.

If you're near Chicago, do yourself a favor and drive through the unincorporated parts of Calumet Township in Lake County, Indiana. It looks like a set from Revolution: buildings are either run down or burnt down, weeds have overgrown most of the parking lots, kids (who should be in school) are playing in the middle of the street, and every face is black.

Some might say that these people have just given up, but I know better. Just a couple of miles in either direction are thriving towns with manicured lawns, pristine parks, and summer festivals. And mostly white faces. Those black folks didn't give up, they were given up on. And like most oppressed peoples, they've only been given two options: poverty or crime.

It's not fair. Not just to black people, but to society. Affirmative action goes against the very core of what it means to be American, and it undermines the hard work that others might have put in for the same job. But merit and good behavior mean nothing to those who rule with prejudice. And until that changes, until black people can earn the same privileges as anyone else, they're going to have to be given those privileges.

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