Anna Julia Cooper: A Response to President Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan

April 6, 2014

 African American Breakthrough Series

Consistent with the Kwanzaa principle Kujichagulia, we are proud to celebrate the history and contribution of African Americans.  Our breakthrough series highlights the ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions, of African Americans which changed and shaped the lives of African Americans and advanced human civilization.

In Defense of African Americans and the Poor

MHPMelissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science at Tulane University, and MSNBC Host and Nation Columnist insightfully notes that the recent comments by Congressman Paul Ryan, castigating black males for being unemployed and the lack of a work ethic, ignited a firestorm among liberals and conservatives.  Ryan” comments that “this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work; and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” was called racist and condemned by those on the Left. Yet, as Professor Harris-Perry points out in her article, Democrats, even President Obama, have been channeling this type of message for some time now.

The comments by President Obama, Harris-Perry states, were similar in nature and seem to repackage the same conservative narrative.  See observes, “Our current Democratic president has not offered a new narrative. His script seems borrowed. Just in February the White House launched a new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which targets young men of color. “No excuses,” announced President Obama. “Government, and the private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need. But you’ve got responsibilities too.

To be sure, Ryan’s comments represent the classical rightwing ideology and messaging with respect to race and culture.  However, as the electoral terrain has shifted to the right, even democrats have adopted some of the conservative’s talking points and ideological perspective. However, again, as Harris-Perry notes, President Obama’s statement differs little from that of Ryan

Thus, whenever elected officials—democrats or republicans– are discussing public resources or programs for blacks or poor people (black and poor have become synonymous), they tend qualify their support with a condition that blacks or the poor “work hard,” or play by the rules.”  And, since they are often seen as non contributors “takers,” who lack social worth, with some culture deficiency, as Ryan claims, they are undeserving of any investment or help from the government.

Anna Julia CooperAnna Julia Cooper has articulated the best response to both Congressman Ryan and President Obama in her classical work, A Vice From the South.  In this work, she advances the theory of worth argument, which she issues in response to racist arguments against the value of black people. In a blatant and brazen statement, Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist and minister and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, remarked: “Were Africa and Africans to sink to-morrow, how much poorer would the world be?  A little less gold and ivory, a little less coffee, a considerable ripple perhaps, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans would come together—that is all; not a poem, not an intervention, not a piece of art would be missed from the world.”

Beecher’s statement suggests humankind could do without black people since they are non-contributors to civilization, and thus are, “takers.”  Cooper’s response, as noted by Lewis Gordon, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Judaic Studies at Temple University, was that “worth was a function of what an individual produced in relation to that which was invested in him or her.”  Cooper pointed out that a paucity of resources had been invested in blacks. Yet despite this, blacks through their unpaid labor (slavery) have been integral to the production of American wealth.  In fact, she posits that slavery denied and retarded the human potential of African Americans, and because of this, whatever intellectual and educational deficits of blacks are not the responsibility of blacks, but of those who enslaved them.

Closely related to the above, she argues that slavery denied African Americans the chance to develop through their own free labor and were they deprived of formal education and training.  “Education,” she asserts, “is the safest and richest investment possible to man.”  It pays the largest dividends and gives the greatest product in the world—a man.”  Yet, despite this, blacks have still advanced and made a contribution to America beyond their forced labor.  Summing up her point, she declares: A man is to be praised primarily not for having inherited fine tools and faultless materials but for making the most of the stuff he has, and doing his best in spite of disadvantages and poor materials.  The individual is responsible not for what he has not, but for what he has; and the vital part for us after all depends on the use we make of our materials” [raw potential].

Furthermore, Cooper points to the discrimination against blacks by businesses and labor unions in favor of native-born whites and newly arrived immigrants from Europe who were less skilled that blacks and had far less command of the English language.   Although blacks were highly skilled craftsmen and had mastered mechanics during their long period of enslavement, Cooper notes that skilled was “steadily drifting into the hands of white workmen—mostly foreigners.  She further observes:

The white engineer holds a tight monopoly both of the labor market and of the science of his craft.  Nothing would induce him to take colored apprentice or even to work beside a colored workman.

Production Cooper insightful puts forth is a function of investment.  In human terms, investment must be calculated over generations.  Summing up her theory on growth and achieved potentiality, she writes:

Now whatever notions we may indulge on the theory of evolution and the laws of atavism or heredity, all concede that no individual character receives its raw material newly created and independent of the rock from whence it was hewn.  No life is bound up within the period of its conscious existence.  No personality dates its origin form its birthday.  The elements that are twisted into the cord did not begin their formation when first the tiny thread became visible in the great warp and filing of humanity.

Thus, achieved human potential, at the individual or collective level, occurs and shaped, realized over time.  Cooper further explains that: “The material that go to make a man, the probabilities of his character and activities, the condition and circumstances of his growth, and his quantum of resistance and mastery are the resultant of forces witch have been accumulating and gathering momentum for generations.”

Given all of the above, Cooper argues that whites have produced far less than what should be expected given their social and intellectual inheritance, their current social investment (primary and higher education and industrial training), their privileged position in American society and the absence of racial oppression nor were enslaved. She observes:

It is a fact which every candid man who rids through the rural districts in the South will admit, that the Negro is ahead of the white man of his chances.  Indeed, it would not be hard to show that the white man of his chances does not exist.  The “Crackers” and “Poor-whites” were never slaves, were never oppressed or discriminated against.  Their time, their earnings, their activities have always been at their own disposal; and pauperism in their case can be attributed to nothing but stagnation—moral, mental, and physical immobility: while in the case of the Negro, poverty can at least be partially accounted for by the hard conditions of life and labor,–the past oppression and continued repression which form the vital air in which the Negro lives and moves and has his being.

Lesson for Ryan and Obama

Fundamentally, Anna Julia Cooper argues that a person’s productive capacity is a function of what the person (or race) produces in relation to that which is invested in him or her.  In comparison to whites, very little has been invested in African Americans historically and contemporaneously.  Yet, despite the enormous handicap of slavery, segregation, structural racism as well as internal deficits, black youth male and female, are producing well beyond what is invested in them.  By contrast, the amount invested, socially, economically, and culturally in whites youth, in production for their achievements, is so costly that it diminishes their overall worth.  Although some achieve much more that is invested in them, more white youth produce far less than what is invested in them.

The educational achievement gap, for instance, is much more an example of what is invested in children and youth and the availability of opportunities and resources than learning deficiencies.  Similarly, unemployment is a function of the lack of investment in young black men and women and employment opportunities, rather than a cultural deficit.

The Ryan 2014/2015 budget makes it even more probable that this pattern of divestment and lack of opportunity will persist.  Rather than preach ideology and advance political talking points, listening to the voice of Anna Julia Cooper and adhering to her theory of human worth and production would better serve Congressman Ryan and President Obama.










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