Bourgeois norms in black history, Robert Woodson’s take

I wrote here about an op-ed by professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in which the authors praised America’s 1950s “bourgeois culture.” Though acknowledging the existence of “racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism” in that culture, they insisted that the modern “loss of bourgeois habits has seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups.”

Wax and Alexander described the habits they extolled this way:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

Predictably, Wax and Alexander were instantly accused of racism by what Robert Woodson describes as “the growing army of angry academics who police the prevailing narrative of black victimhood.” Woodson observes that, according to this narrative “black progress is determined not by personal choices and individual behavior, but by white supremacy, America’s history of slavery and discrimination, and institutional racism.” Thus, “touting ‘bourgeois values’ is interpreted as an offense against authentic black culture.”

Woodson, a hero of ours, is a civil rights activist who broke with the civil rights movement because he found that its agenda has little relevance to impoverished neighborhoods. I wrote about Woodson’s journey and his work in this piece for the Weekly Standard.

Woodson has responded to the attack by angry leftist academics on the thesis of professors Wax and Alexander in a column for the Wall Street Journal. He notes that the power of the Wax-Alexander thesis was understood by Frederick Douglas based on what he observed during the days of slavery. Woodson writes:

A better life has always been available to those who reject undisciplined and irresponsible behavior, and embrace self-determination and personal responsibility. So-called bourgeois values have always empowered blacks to persevere and overcome bitter oppression. They provided the moral “glue” that held the black community together during the hardest of times.

The life-affirming values that enabled Douglass and others to survive retain their potency in the 21st century. Hundreds of examples of achievement against the odds prove this point. In cities around the country, activists like Bertha Gilkey have ousted drug dealers from public housing projects, transformed their communities, and sent hundreds of young people to college. Neighborhood moral mentors and character coaches from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee have changed the behavior, attitudes and life trajectories of once-violent gang members.

Yet Black Lives Matter activists and their followers deride these life-affirming values. They go so far as to claim that praising them constitutes “normalizing white supremacy.” In effect, says Woodson, “the race grievance industry declares that what constitutes ‘normal’ for blacks is different than what constitutes ‘normal’ for whites.”

The issue isn’t what’s “normal.” The issue is what works. Woodson understands, as Frederick Douglas did, that “bourgeois values” work for members of all races. Rejecting these values, no matter what jargon rationalizes the rejection, works for none.

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