The Cult of Victimhood

Those who insist that slavery is the root of all evil in America and that, as a result, blacks are victims, denigrate the strength of black Americans. I long have argued that, contrary to the designation of those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II as the “Greatest Generation,” in reality the greatest generation was that of the freed slaves. These were people who had been demeaned as chattel and had no possessions; many had no marketable skills, were mostly illiterate, and lacked a last name. They were suddenly liberated from southern plantations and thrust into the world of freedom.

Certainly, many were transformed from slaves into tenant farmers, but at least they were free. Many were exploited, but many also received an education provided by whites who founded a number of our black colleges. Indeed, Howard University is named for Union Gen. Oliver O. Howard, who commanded a wing of Sherman’s army and who my great-grandmother told me “came up Bonner’s Hill” in Clinton, Georgia, while she was picking cotton. I find it hard to believe that Howard, Spellman, and Morehouse colleges were founded by whites to victimize blacks.

Those who insist on according blacks victim status are guilty of perpetuating the caricatures of black people made famous by Stepin Fetchit, “Little Black Sambo,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “Mandingo.” Given that caricatures are parodies, victimhood is little more than an excuse. Convincing some that they cannot achieve because they are black flies in the face of this paradox:  how can a high-achieving black person truthfully tell another black person that their lack of achievement is because of their race?

I grew up with parents who, because of their upbringing, neither tolerated excuses nor believed in victimhood. We lived in southwest Atlanta’s all-black enclave. As a result, I never had a conversation with a white person until I became the first black male freshman at the University of Georgia in 1966. For us, whites were a caricature. We saw them through the lens of the television. Shows such as “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” showed us a household to which we could not relate because the wife did not work outside the home. Through the news, we saw images of white women cursing and spitting on black children trying to go to school in Clinton, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas; and the horrifying images of Emmett Till’s beaten body and, later, those of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These events and others reinforced the feeling among my peers that most whites were violent, uneducated, and best avoided.

My first day on campus, these feelings quickly dissipated when I met white students, who became my friends despite some name-calling and ostracizing from their peers.

Across the changes in economic status from my former slave great-grandparents to my grandparents to my parents and to me, a retired finance professor with a Ph.D., and my late brother, a former airline pilot with a Ph.D., I cannot find one victim. Nor can I find a victim among any of my other relatives.

My father was from a small town in south Georgia. His parents did not finish high school. His mother was a “domestic” and would not let her four girls do household chores; the three boys did them instead. She said she did not want her girls to have to work in white people’s houses, and insisted that all her children go to college. They did. Six of them graduated and the seventh became a businessman. My maternal grandfather was a farmer, working land that had been in the family since 1868. My grandmother had a high school education and served as the one-room schoolmarm for black children in their rural Georgia county.

No one among my relatives on either side considered himself or herself a victim.

As a result, I never dreamed of telling my parents about any of the incidents that occurred during my freshman year as the first — and only — black male living in a dorm. I knew that I could not come into the house with “C” marks saying the average grades were because someone would break my windows most nights and I could not study. My father would have said, “Then find a place to study.” So I did. No excuses. No whining. No victims.

Nevertheless, growing up in the segregated South prompted me to ask my parents why they didn’t leave. Until my college years, though largely left alone if they “knew their place,” blacks in the South endured a reign of terror. A black person could be killed by a white who was not likely to be prosecuted. Indeed, two of my mother’s cousins were lynched in 1913 and their killers were never arrested. Yet my parents and others like them did not leave because of a strong sense of home — and a stronger sense that they would not be better off living in the North.

Some did leave. Nicholas Lemann’s wonderful “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America” could have been the story of those in my family who left Jones County, Georgia, for Detroit to work in the factories during World War II. My maternal grandfather also left, but returned shortly after because he could not find any rabbits to hunt. The Yankee cousins would visit in their big cars and fur coats, mocking their country cousins who tilled the soil on hardscrabble farms. They pitied us because their children matriculated at University of Michigan and Michigan State while we were relegated to meagerly supported, segregated state colleges. My father went to Savannah State and my mother was the first four-year graduate of Fort Valley State University.

Much like my grandfather, my parents also preferred living in the segregated South. My father’s own work conditions were more or less integrated. His full-time night job was as a clerk at the main post office. But this was the only place where his colleagues could be white and the bathrooms and lunchroom were not segregated. He always resented that only his black co-workers had college degrees and none of the whites did except for the supervisors. In those days, in the deep South, blacks with college degrees could only work for themselves or for the government. However, my parents simply could not envision the circumstances under which blacks would want to live with whites, and especially worship with them.

This was a time in the South when, as an educated person, you could have a good life and live comfortably if you “kept to your place.” We lived among blacks in a middle-class neighborhood. We were mostly two-adult households and college-educated. The yards were well-kept. There was no litter; if a piece of trash somehow found its way into our neighborhood, we would stop the car and pick it up.

All of us kids went to college. Most went to black colleges but some, like my brother, went away. My brother wanted to be an engineer and went to Purdue because, when he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1960, he could not go to Georgia Tech because the state of Georgia gave him a tuition stipend to leave the state, since no black state school offered degrees in engineering. My parents fully expected us to return home after acquiring our education. When my brother became a pilot, it was no surprise that he diligently worked to make Atlanta his home base. It took him several years, but when it happened, he moved into an all-black neighborhood close to the airport.

Throughout my family’s history we have been guided by choice and responsibility, not by victimhood. Therefore, the notion of reparations for slavery puzzles me. The answer, of course, lies in the cult of victimhood that seeks to trivialize the stunning accomplishments of our people from the day they set foot in America to their proud descendants.

The issue of reparations is not new. In 1999, several African nations demanded that the West pay $777 trillion in reparations. This argument was curious, in that many if not most Africans were sold into slavery by other Africans. In 2004, the British government was sued for reparations for its role in the slave trade. Nothing was paid but the British prime minister apologized for Britain’s participation in the slave trade. In the Caribbean, many nations also demanded reparations to no avail.

The problem of payment is an issue unto itself. If individual blacks were to be compensated, there would be a problem of equity. Surely individuals such as Tiger Woods and LeBron James would not receive payments that were the same as those paid to the indigent. Questions would arise as to who was black and whose ancestors were slaves. There would be a rush on DNA studies as whites would seek to be classified as black.

As a case in point, a dear friend of mine while conducting an ancestor search discovered to her surprise that her great-grandmother was classified as mulatto in an early census. Should she receive compensation?

In my case, my mother’s DNA revealed that she was 32 percent British and less than 50 percent African. In my case, I am over 50 percent African with the rest being British, Scots-Irish, Western European, and Scandinavian. Thus, instead of being African-American, I guess I should be reclassified as mongrel-American. Suggestions that reparations go to institutions or certain charities also are rife with flaws. It truly is difficult to envision compensating some for the sins of their ancestors. Still, if there is really such a thing as white guilt, then I would be happy to receive any money they might want to send me, though as a matter of law I consider it ridiculous.

There actually have been reparations aplenty. The War on Poverty has spent over $23 trillion in reparations since 1965. Although some on the right point out that poverty rates are unchanged, and those on the Left say that this means trillions more must be spent, both are wrong. Grants and subsidies are not counted as income. If they were, poverty rates would fall to less than 5 percent, indicating a lessening of poverty. Moreover, when I look at the household income of blacks, I also see that reparations have been paid. Yes, the mean black household income of $59,000 is significantly less than that of whites ($89,000), but compare that to the per capita income of the three African incomes in my DNA: Cameroon, $1,451; Mali, $827; and Togo, $610.

So even though slavery was evil, cruel, and harsh, we are a proud people who have prospered despite the odds. We are only hampered when we listen to people who demean us by insisting that racism prevents us from being full participants in society, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Read John Sibley Butler’s account of black entrepreneurship and then consider that it was the War on Poverty’s resultant destruction of the black family that derailed our progress. Although some may think that the War on Poverty was intended to make blacks wards of the state, and that this is the real victimization, many blacks have not succumbed to it and have continued to send their children to schools, to take their families to church, and to teach self-responsibility.

We all know that poverty rates are dramatically higher among single-mother households. More than 65 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.[BF1]  Marriage drops the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. Moreover, there is a significant gap in the incomes of college-educated households and other households regardless of race.

Blacks have a proud history of strength and self-reliance. That continues today, despite the caricatures painted by those demanding reparations. I am reminded of a student of mine who was wearing a tee shirt depicting a black person in chains with the words: “I was not asked to be brought here.” I asked her, “Aren’t you glad you were?” Her answer was, “Oh, my goodness, yes!” So I repeat: reparations aplenty.

Harold A. Black, Ph.D., is the James F. Smith Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Copyright 2020 The Woodson Center