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RBBA President’s Message: The pathology of ignorance in the black community

By AARON FRAZIER

Daily Record Columnist

“My brothers and sisters, educate your children. Give them the broadest … highest education possible; train them to the limit of their ability. See that your child gets not the highest task, but the best fitted to his or her ability. Never forget that if we ever compel the world’s respect, it will be by virtue of our heads and not our heels.” ― W.E.B. Du Bois.

Shortly before she died, she told me she never worried about my future as a black male in America because for as long as she had known me, she had never once seen an external force determine my path. She said what fascinated her about me was that I already knew something the mere knowledge of which was sufficient to chart my course whatever contingency might arise. She told me never to forget how lucky I was because as a mere juvenile I had already grasped something that many never do. She concluded by attributing my precociousness in that regard to my penchant for daydreaming.

Aaron T. Frazier

Aaron T. Frazier

Hearing such a cryptic message as a mere adolescent set my curiosity ablaze. I entertained what now seems like an infinite number of possible meanings to her message. It was years before I finally figured out what she meant. The irony of it was that the very trait she was complimenting and the very knowledge she was hinting were the very things that delayed my receipt of the message for so long. She was complimenting my overactive imagination. She was hinting at the sense of self and appreciation for ideas my overactive imagination caused me to develop so early in life.

Her point was that people who truly know themselves and who truly know the power of ideas have the gift of being able to see past any crossroad, any obstacle, whether real or hypothetical, and accordingly have the power to remain undeterred and unburdened as they work to pursue their dreams. For such people, the ideas which they so intimately understand inspire and energize them, and the self-knowledge they possess empowers them to act decisively on their journey when faced with adversity or temptation, rather than succumb to the traps, stagnate in the quagmire that is the paradox of choice, or worst of all outsource their decision-making to others who may not have their best interests in mind and who cannot live their lives for them.

The pathology of ignorance in the black community is what causes so many blacks to succumb, to stagnate, or to outsource their thinking completely. The pathology of ignorance in the black community is, as I observe it, the alarming rate at which individual black persons in this country devalue ideas and devote insufficient attention to their own personal identities, particularly the younger generation. This phenomenon results in a black community that is shockingly dependent on “leaders” and tragically delusional about the path to prosperity for themselves individually and black America collectively. This pathology of ignorance is no doubt attributable, at least in part, to the legacy of a not-so-bygone era in which powerful interests systematically stunted the intellectual and personal growth of many blacks. But it is also attributable to the cruel unfortunate fact of the complacency which seems to pervade the black community at times.

The path to prosperity for black America is a path of persuasion which requires both convincing the rest of America to reexamine the prejudices and presumptions it harbors about the black community, and convincing black Americans that any progress will be slow at best, and cyclical at worst, until a sufficient number of black Americans know themselves and value ideas. A black community comprised of individuals who know themselves and value ideas is the precondition for the flourishing of black America because only individuals who truly know themselves and appreciate the power of ideas can resist the external forces which threaten to divert them from their path. Corrupting influences pervade too many black neighborhoods. Eliminating these influences is not possible. The answer is immunizing our youth from them.

Aristotle famously articulated three modes of persuasion: “pathos,” “ethos” and “logos.” Pathos is the mode of persuasion which seeks to evoke a specific emotional response which then causes the observer to adopt the advocate’s position. Ethos is the mode of persuasion which seeks to cause the observer’s adoption of the advocate’s position by getting the observer to merely defer to the advocate because of the advocate’s apparent expertise or moral authority. Finally, logos is the mode of persuasion which seeks to cause the observer’s adoption of the advocate’s position based on the pure logical soundness of the argument the advocate is making. It is uncontroversial that as an empirical matter all three modes are effective at persuading people. The more controversial question is which is best. I would submit that logos is best because it is the least subject to abuse and exploitation, and the most effective at causing observers to internalize the conclusions they adopt.

The pathology of ignorance in the black community has gotten us into a situation where logos seems to have little effect on too many in the black community, especially among the younger generation. This is tragic because pathos- and ethos-based campaigns are only cosmetic solutions to the problem of race in this country. The problem with pathos and ethos insofar as they relate to the effort to achieve prosperity for the black community is that the “truth” they reveal to people is so fragile and ephemeral.

The pathos of, for example, broadcasting images of police brutality against black people only yields short-term gains to race relations because of the tendency of people to become desensitized to such images, as well as the tendency of people to assume that the problem no longer exists when the images stop being published. Similarly, the ethos of, for example, enlisting charismatic rhetoricians to charm people to join the movement or act a certain way only yields short term gains to race relations because of the tendency of people to devalue the message when the messenger’s all-too-human flaws and moral failings are inevitably revealed. The power of logos is that it induces the observer to adopt “truth” simply because it is true, not because the observer finds the negation emotionally unpleasant at the moment (as in pathos), or because the observer trusts the messenger at the time of the delivery (as in ethos).

The difficulty of logos is that for it to be effective the observer must possess a certain appreciation for ideas and a sense of self – traits that the pathology of ignorance has diminished in the black community (and perhaps America generally). Notwithstanding the truisms that emotions can be misleading and destructive, and that rhetoricians and experts can both fall or abuse the public’s trust, the black community seems fixated on employing these two methods to persuade itself to improve and to persuade the rest of America to recognize the humanity of the black American. Perhaps black America’s election to employ the strategies of pathos and ethos derive from a fear that too much damage has been done to the psyche of the black community to restore the appreciation for ideas and sense of self in enough black Americans to make logos a viable option.

This fear is misplaced. Igniting an appreciation for ideas and sense of self does not require any magic. History and culture has indeed taken its toll on black America, but not to the point where the power of education and the involvement of parents who value learning and nurture their children’s imaginations lose their effectiveness. All it takes to produce a new generation of enlightened black Americans, who by doing nothing other than pursuing their own intellectual curiosities will advance the cause of prosperity for the black community by light-years, is a revival of the pride and creativity that once defined black America even at a time when persecution of black America was near its zenith.

Throughout my journey, I’ve mentored many young black students. I make it a point to ask them the title of the first book their parents read to them. The heartbreakingly most common answer to this question is “my parent(s) never read to me as a child.” When a child’s identity is not cultivated and imagination is not stimulated, the child is denied the opportunity to find his or her calling. A person without a purpose is as weak and as movable as a grocery bag in a hurricane. This is the most painful symptom of the pathology of ignorance in the black community.

While there are certainly obsolete or obsolescent laws on the books that detract from the progress of the black community, among other features of our society that are counterproductive to the improvement of race relations, we cannot afford to ignore that at least some of the pathologies which plague the black community are self-inflicted. The cure, however, for the pathology of ignorance in the black community is for all Americans of every race to do their part to cultivate the identities and stimulate the imaginations of the little black boys and little black girls around this country whose only sin was being born into circumstances which are not conducive to the flowering of their minds. Whatever your background, I challenge you to ask yourself what you are doing to cure the pathology of ignorance in the black community. If we all do not take up this cause, we all will suffer.

“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy America.” ― W.E.B. Du Bois.

Aaron T. Frazier is an associate at Harris Beach PLLC in the Business and Commercial Litigation Practice Group, and is the 2015 president of the Rochester Black Bar Association. He can be reached at afrazier@harrisbeach.com.