Ben Jealous: Personal Responsibility Alone Won’t Fix Structural Inequalities

By Guest Columnist Sep 23, 2009

by Ben Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP. Originally published at Over the weekend I had the opportunity to share the stage with America’s legendary television dad, Bill Cosby. In a town hall forum titled "About Our Children," Cosby and I, along with comedian Paul Rodriguez and University of Wisconsin Professor Maria Cancian, discussed poverty, parenting and the American dream in front of a national audience, broadcast live on MSNBC. I spoke about my childhood education, as a kid growing up in California. I explained that my county had multiple schools. One, across the county, had resources I needed, while the school closer to my home did not. Because of local zoning law I was assigned to the school closer to home. Even as a child, I knew that I needed to be at the better school. I put up such a fight about it that my parents simply found a way to put me on the bus to the other school. They bent the rules so that I could have a better education. I shared this story because it is an important example of my family taking responsibility for my education. It is a lesson that I will never forget, and it most certainly put me on the path to where I am today. But the other reason that I chose this anecdote is that it underscores another important reality, one often lost in these discussions of individual responsibility. In order to take control of my education, my family actually had to defy the law. Families often face enormous structural barriers to success, barriers that can impede even the most conscientious, tenacious and, yes, responsible parents. Here is one example: today black teen unemployment sits at a staggering 35 percent. Think about that figure for a minute. We are not talking about a "jobless" rate here – unemployment figures count only the number of African-American teenagers actively looking for work. In other words, when an involved, responsible parent pushes Junior to go out and find a job, more than one third of the time there is simply no job to be found. This situation is not only discouraging – not to mention financially problematic – but it can actually undermine the parents’ authority in the home, because they are promoting a path that doesn’t exist. Personal responsibility alone cannot overcome structural impediments. For a century, the NAACP has promoted individual responsibility to build strong black families and healthy communities, but to stop there would have been to ignore the gaping political obstacles to achieving our goals. Much of the public discourse continues to be dominated by the responsibility frame, but mere complaining about "those parents" or "the kids today" will not completely solve this nation’s problems. We need to address structural inequalities as well. It was not lack of personal responsibility that caused Joseph Harris, a dedicated single father in DC, to be homeless. He was in a car accident and couldn’t work. Although he’s looking for work and working odd jobs, he can’t make ends meet. It’s just not enough. It was not a dearth of family values that caused Milwaukee grandmother Amira Weaver to almost lose her home after she decided to help clean up her community by purchasing the crack house next door for her son. Mrs. Weaver had good credit, a 6 percent loan on her own home but was steered by an unscrupulous broker into a loan that, when she read the fine print, revealed she was paying 11 percent. Similarly, it is not the absence of responsibility that caused Robert Floyd to get kidney cancer. He has lost sight in one eye, and is having problems in his other eye. His health insurance policy said they wouldn’t cover his eye or kidney problems, and now he may die while they wait, leaving behind his wife and a child. Family values are important, but we must also have policies in place that value families. President Obama got it exactly right when he told the NAACP this summer that government had a responsibility to "overcome the inequities, the injustices, the barriers that still exist in our country." He cited the high dropout rates in some black communities and the "crumbling schools and overcrowded classrooms, and corridors of shame in America filled with poor children," noting that they are not just an African-American problem but an American problem that government needs to address.