I recently had a conversation with a person I like and respect. During this conversation, this friend suggested to me that I come across as angry, and that I talk about problems more than I propose solutions.
While I don't believe this to be accurate, given my own personal history of developing and advocating for new solutions to the problems we face, I think the conversation raises two very important questions: 1) How can you start by proposing a solution where people haven't fully grasped and assessed the full set of facts relating to the problem?; and 2) who gets to determine who is angry as opposed to who is passionate? And under that umbrella, what anger is righteous and justified, and what is just complaining?
I'll start with the first question. There has been much in the media lately about poverty and its causes -- about who or what is responsible. Is it the system? ...or individuals, via their bad personal decisions?
If we say that the root cause of poverty is individuals, then I need people to explain to me why the black unemployment rate has been double the white unemployment rate for six decades. Are we truly to believe that double the number of black folks merely didn't feel compelled to work, as some have suggested? How about the myth that there are more black men in prison than there are in college? That's not true today, and it may never have been, according to Dr. Ivory Toldson. In fact, "[t]oday there are approximately 600,000 more black men in college than in jail." What is true, however, is that black folks are overrepresented in community colleges, and University of Phoenix is the number one provider of degrees to black folks in America. This is a structural problem, not one rooted in individual choice. Think Progress delves deeper into some of the systemic roots of the issue, including educational access and cuts to social programs.
What about social mobility? Some suggest that it hasn't gotten any worse in the past 20 years, supporting this with data showing that "the probability that a child reaches the top fifth of the income distribution given parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution is 8.4 percent for children born in 1971, compared with 9.0 percent for those born in 1986." Even if this were the whole picture, it would still not be a very positive thing for black folks, given the unemployment track record over the last 60 years. After all, the numbers indicate a 90 percent chance of failure. Others suggest that social mobility hasn't in fact really increased since the Industrial Age, which -- for obvious historical reasons -- wouldn't be positive for blacks.
I could go on, but the point is this: There are easily verifiable facts that undergird many of our social problems and typically these facts shine a direct light on the sources of the problems. There are policies that have been enacted that have directly caused (or that continue to exacerbate) social inequities. Policy makers and debaters should be students of history, lest they direct blame towards the wrong people (see: the powerless and downtrodden) rather than the system (see: "The Ghetto is Policy"), or lest they enact foolhardy policies (e.g., tying welfare benefits to students' grades) that will create more problems, not solve the ones we are currently facing.
If we are going to talk solutions, we need to clearly understand the problems; and when people talk about society, progress and injustice, as Jay Z said, "I think I have to send you a reminder, here it is... Men lie, women lie, numbers don't."
And now to my second question: There has been a long history of calling someone angry instead of passionate as a way of denigrating the person -- a strongly racialized and genderized history. When women get angry about issues that affect them, they are called radical -- for instance, for positing that women aren't responsible for their own rape. Melissa Harris-Perry has suggested that "anger is still one of the most ubiquitous stereotypes faced by black women in modern society." When people talk about systemic inequities as they relate to race, they are cast as "race hustlers." CNN ran an article discussing how white Americans are uncomfortable with any sign of Obama showing his temper because he would evoke the stereotype of the angry African-American man. The "angry black man" trope, though it still causes outrage, is as ubiquitous as ever: In a comment titled, "Angry Black Men are so Scary," a contributor to NPR's Race Card Project stated, "The potential for violence from an angry black man is so much higher than any other source it's scary. An unarmed black man is a threat unless proven otherwise."
Perhaps folks view me as angry and counterproductive when I point out the injustice I see and live. On the other hand, I guess I would ask: If you're paying attention, then where is your outrage?
"If you want to be a real human being -- a real woman, a real man -- you cannot tolerate things which put you to indignation, to outrage. You must stand up. I always say to people, 'Look around; look at what makes you unhappy, what makes you furious, and then engage yourself in some action.'" - Stéphane Hessel