The Deseret News just published a column by Ralph Hancock, a Harvard-trained BYU professor of political science. Hancock suggests black people in America would be better off if they could learn to see the world through his white male eyes. “Black stories matter,” the headline says, and the substance of the piece is that the biggest problems facing black people are ultimately their own fault, or at least the solution to their problems are chiefly in their hands.
I was surprised to see Hancock say we should judge stories largely according to their “practical effects.” How well do our stories help us accomplish the things we want? If black people have problems, they must consider the fact that their stories are at fault. Those stories include things like the fact that racism still walks the streets, that by virtue of the color of their skin they are more often burdened with greater risks and fewer opportunities than others. We gave you the Civil Rights Act, Hancock says in effect, the rest is on you. America opened the doors of the cage but black people stubbornly shut themselves back in again. The legal and sometimes extra-legal actions they take to address those problems (why are they blocking streets? That doesn’t seem like a civil thing to do) will fail because they are rooted in the wrong story.
Hancock’s solution is for black people to think like he thinks, to absorb his story:
“If I am a young black person who believes that America, despite its flaws and its checkered past, is on the whole a just society where talent, effort and the content of one’s character are honored and rewarded, regardless of race, then it makes sense to build my personal story as an effort to play by the rules and to have some confidence in the goodwill of my white fellow citizens. If this is my story, then I will see both my failures and my successes as mainly my own responsibility.”
This can come across like this: “if I was a black person who saw the world like a white person, I would agree with me.”
Hancock seems bothered when black Americans express cynicism about the American dream which says if you “play by the rules” you’ll receive your just desserts, regardless of all other variables. He asks: Which of the big stories about America makes for a healthier soul and society? I suggest it’s the story that doesn’t assume that the fallout from centuries of systemic racism, exploitation, violence, and degradation, was all erased during one decade of the twentieth century, as important and remarkable as that decade was.
I agree with Hancock especially on one point. Our American ideals and the stories we tell about them do matter. And Hancock gestures toward a crucial point with this caveat: “Every story is of course an approximation; no story can be conclusively proved by any set of facts.” At the same time, he seems to invite us to accept a story that requires the least from him, from me, and it’s a story that requires the most from those who are hurting the most right now.
The Deseret News also published a piece by Richard Davis today, also a BYU professor of political science. It’s hard not to read it as one among several possible rebuttals of Hancock:
“Some may blame all of these problems on African-Americans themselves. That attitude ignores the history of discrimination that has led up to today. An inability to recognize the roots of our difficulties is one of the biggest challenges Americans face today with race relations. It is not surprising that many African-Americans are angry about how they have been treated and how they are still treated today.”
Of course, the common denominator between Hancock, Davis, and myself is that we’re all white males. If we’re going to say black stories matter, maybe we could actually start listening to them much more than any of us already have, rather than offering our own stories as preferable replacements. Where can we start?
*P.S.—I recently spoke with Julius Bailey about the history of African American religion. It was a fascinating discussion that helps complicate the simplistic narrative of America simply being a land of opportunity, home of the free. It’s more complex than that, as things usually are. You can listen to the interview HERE, or read the transcript HERE.