Kanye says ‘slavery for 400 years, that feels like a choice’; here’s why he’s right

Photo credit: Ultra 5280 via Flickr

By Herman Cain

Kanye West doesn’t need me to defend him. He’s a big man and he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

But I want to amplify and illuminate some of his words from recent days, especially the ones he uttered on the now-exploding video from his discussion in the TMZ newsroom yesterday.

You can watch it for yourself, but the popular media take on this is that Kanye claimed black people made a choice to be subjected to slavery. That is not what he said, but as is typical, people are too busy venting their outrage with him to really hear what he’s trying to tell them. If they would listen, they would realize the message is empowering, and I know that because it’s the same message I’ve lived by throughout my adult life.

Here’s the exchange, and you’ll especially note the indignation that comes from the guy at the end, shouting at him from the doorway:

Now of course, black people did not choose slavery during the period of world history when we were subjected to it. And Kanye is not saying we did.

What he’s talking about is the mindset that persists to this day, one of victimhood and “struggle.” It’s one that still thinks, even after all these years, that everyone is out to get us, kill us, keep us down and marginalize us. And it’s one that insists on responding to this supposed state of affairs by imposing a rigid orthodoxy that doesn’t permit black people to think for themselves or make up their own minds about anything.

How many times have you heard civil rights leaders say things like “the struggle continues”? The message is that we’re still oppressed and outcast, and we’re still struggling to break free of it.

Yet when you really think about it, you can’t help but wonder: Why would anyone want to struggle? Struggling isn’t good. Struggling means you’re having a hard time and you’re very far from success. People who are focused on success think in terms of achievement and triumph. Consider Barack Obama. Whether you liked what he did as president or not (and I think you know I mostly didn’t), he didn’t run for president in order to lose and prove how no one will vote for black people. He ran to win. He expected to win. He carried himself like a winner.

And he won. I don’t advocate following Obama’s example on very many things, but there he was living out the very thing Kanye is saying. He didn’t approach the pursuit of the presidency as a man caught up in the mentality of oppression. He wanted it, he believed he could get it, he grabbed it, he got it.

Yet too many black people still get run down by our own people for doing the same.

If you work hard, finish school, get a job, work well with others, dress nice, use the language well .  . . you’re “acting white.” And what good does it do us to not do these things? We’re showing Whitey he can’t tell us how to be, I suppose, but are we really making our own situations any better? Look, if you want to do the whole rebel thing, I’m not your dad. Do what you want and prepare for the results. But don’t let anyone tell you that you have to act a certain way, and only that way, or you won’t be “authentically black.”

Every other group of people celebrates its free spirits and nonconformists, but black people come down on theirs as if they’re guilty of the highest form of apostasy.

How is that not also a form of slavery? It may not be the shackles and chains, but it’s an intellectual and emotional slavery that demands complete submission to an orthodoxy.

When I was coming up through the ranks in my business career, I was well aware of the history of racial discrimination in this country. I knew it had not been completely eradicated. And yes, I experienced some. But here’s how I chose to look at it: Everyone who pursues a goal will have some things to overcome. This would undoubtedly be one of mine as a black man looking to go places in the corporate world. But just because I had to overcome obstacles didn’t mean I couldn’t succeed, and it also didn’t mean I was any less responsible for my own fate. Everyone who succeeds overcomes things. That’s part of the process.

I would certainly not choose to identify with oppression or discrimination. I would not see myself as a guy being treated unfairly. I would see myself as a guy who had what it took to succeed and was going to do just that, no matter what I had to overcome to do it.

This is what Kanye is talking about. Yes, slavery happened. Yes, racism has happened and still happens. But is this the mindset you’re going to embrace? Everyone is discriminating against me and it’s so hard? Is this the identity you want? That you’re a victim of unfairness rather than an overcomer?

Have you ever known a person who seems to always be sick? You don’t even want to ask them how they’re doing because all they’ll do is launch into a litany of health complaints. This is how they self-identify. This is who they are. They can’t break free of it because they don’t know any other way to think about themselves.

If we as a people got our freedom, but we refuse to stop identifying with the “struggle” and our past hurts, we are never really free of them. The obstacles you overcome can be part of a glorious success story that is your life. But that can only happen if you’re willing to identify as a victor, not as a victim. That is what Kanye is trying to say. Stop being so upset with him and listen to him.

Kanye’s message is clear: Slavery at this point in history is a mindset, and that’s a choice.

I don’t know that Kanye has necessarily embraced everything I believe about politics and policy. He probably hasn’t. But it doesn’t matter. He’s recognized the most important thing, which is that we have to let ourselves be free as individuals, and as thinkers, rather than simply erecting our own chains and shackles and bars, because we don’t know how to think like people who are not oppressed.

Because as long as we think like that, Kanye is right, this time the slavery is a choice, and we’re doing it to ourselves.