A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I’m not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are “not holding up their end of the deal” as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship:
If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.
Cousin Pookie and Uncle Jethro voted at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the country. They voted for Barack Obama. Our politics have not changed. Neither has Barack Obama’s rhetoric. Facts can only get in the way of a good story. It was sort of stunning to see the president give a speech on the fate of young black boys and not mention the word racism once. It was sort of stunning to see the president salute the father of Trayvon Martin and the father of Jordan Davis and then claim, “Nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”
As Ta Nehisi Coates explains, Paul Ryan’s remarks on inner-city black males actually fit neatly in a long tradition of progressive scolding of black people, both from within and without the black community in the US.
Jonathan Chait disagreed, arguing that there are substantial differences between rightwing and progressive rhetoric about black responsibility, defending president Obama in particular:
But Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.
This drew a waspy response from Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker, who called this “the kind of treacly liberalism best reserved for movies about dedicated white teachers who inspire their angry inner-city students”, arguing:
It’s not a coincidence that the history of black self-help has been so closely associated with many of the fiercest critics of the American social order. Discussions of race in America are mired in comparisons between blacks and other immigrant groups, but the dividing line is apparent: while the immigrant effort at self-improvement has often been rooted in a faith in American possibility, the ethic of black uplift was frequently entwined with its very opposite, an indictment of that possibility—or a loss of faith in its promise.
Ta Nehisi also responded, concluding:
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.