“Personal responsibility.” Few phrases can more quickly tear up a family dinner, or a community organization meeting. Of course, that’s because few phrases tap into such a fundamental, yet slippery issue: who gets held accountable, and to what degree? And how do we make things better if we can’t figure that out?

We felt the divisive effects this week when Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter addressed his church’s congregation with a message echoing Bill Cosby’s infamous poundcake speech, pinning the city’s problems squarely on “human ATMs” and “sperm donors” — Nutter’s terms for absentee fathers. As our blogger Jorge Rivas points out, Nutter didn’t mention that Philly’s black population is subjected to record-breaking unemployment rates, and that under him, the city spends extraordinarily little per capita on public services. In other words? Seems like Mayor Nutter’s not taking responsibility for meeting his own challenges.

But as billed, this is a divisive issue, and the Colorlines community isn’t immune. Here’s what you had to say.

parkwood1920:

When will mayors take responsibility for the poverty, joblessness, and institutional inequality in their cities? And along that line, when will governors and presidents follow suit?

See, personal and professional responsibility is every adult’s responsibility — parent or not.

Brent Snavely:

AAS then BS/BA degrees, now MS/MA degrees — these are then new HS diplomas. Socioeconomic class stratification remains firmly entrenched — we are ALL a great deal “smarter” (or at least paper-trained) and are largely RIGHT where our parents and we, ourselves, started. I think I’ll go get a pound cake…

crystal evans:

With many of these communities end up being drug and gang infested, businesses that used to give these young people their first jobs have left the community. I wonder if we need a new version of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, that put similarly-situated young men, regardless of race, to work during the Depression cleaning parks in their neighborhood and even fighting brushfires. The government provided food, housing and clothing for the young men, and most of their pay was sent to their parents. All of the young men, regardless of race, received equal pay and benefits.

Wonderwoman:

I don’t think it’s elitist to ask people to take responsibility for their decisions and actions. We’re turning a very dangerous corner when we start to assume you can’t expect poor blacks to be responsible as if they’re incapable children that don’t know any better, as the media often slyly infers. Responsibility doesn’t have anything to do with economic status.

Aiden Paige:

Oh god, blame it on these kids not having jobs. When I went to school guess what my average classmates did to better themselves… Rap during lectures and practice weapon concealment on school campus. No joke, we had three kids in one year bring a pistol on campus. These assholes all happened to be black. I’m not racist either, everyone sees this shit on a day to day basis, except no one has the fucking balls to say anything for fear of being labeled racist, or getting beat by some fucking sensitive mob of black people.

Look what they are doing in the streets out there, fuck, when I was jobless I didn’t go around burning shit, I kept on searching for work, looting takes too much time from the job search. It has a lot to do with the parents. Sure, there is obviously something deeper than that, and it does stem from poverty, but who makes the decision to sit around in shit or get up and take a shower? The individual. That applies to white, black, asian, whatever. I grew up homeless, I still had my parents to teach me how to act. I think Cosby and Nutter have a valid fucking point.

Brotha Wolf responds:

With all due respect, it’s good you didn’t go down the wrong path, but these youth are not you. I think you’re trying to paint black youth with the broad brush of dysfunction while comparing them to your upbringing. We’ve all done it. I’ve done it. But, sooner or later, you learn to change your way of thinking.

I’m guessing many of these black youth may have grown up in unstable, economically poor environments with poor education, violence, drugs, and little to no employment. I know it doesn’t excuse their actions. Still, the experience of being young and black in this nation is different than those of young whites.

Mix in the constant demonization of black skin through the society. Add in the histories of slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the War on Drugs, and throw in a pinch of crappy law enforcement, scapegoating and intergenerational trauma, and you have a recipe for disaster.

It’s easy to blame black youth and black parents for these mob attacks. That is part of what American politics does. However, if we believe that blame alone will make a huge difference, we are fooling ourselves. I’m not excusing for what the youth have done, but nowadays, when they want to be seen or heard, they have to do something drastic to get your attention, and that includes violence. I think it’s PAST time to hear them out.

And I’ll close out this post with a comment from another conversation on Colorlines this week, about the new reports that 31 million kids in the U.S. live in poverty. Here’s oldenuf2knowbtr:

In my lifetime, I have seen the minority communities on Chicago’s south side turn from vibrant, secure communities to shooting galleries. A 17-year-old pregnant mother of a one-year-old was executed the other day. The 6-month fetus, delivered by C-section, is fighting for his life. If he survives, he and his brother will be raised by his grandmother, probably on public funds. Not too long ago a gang-banger, aged 25, was shot and killed by police. His current girlfriend is carrying his baby. His tenth child. Who would have supported those children had he even lived and worked?

I have three well-educated, articulate and talented grown children, two of whom have lost everything they had and are struggling to keep their families going. They work at low-wage jobs, whatever they could find after being laid off, live below poverty level, and survive with our help, which is limited by our modest income and our medical expenses. We all do without. So far they and their children have received little - the two youngest grandchildren have had school expenses covered and do qualify for lunch programs. They and one of their older cousins have excelled academically and two are struggling - all under the same circumstances.

Does poverty cause behavior or does behavior determine poverty? Draw your own conclusions.


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