The Princess and the Frog — Disney’s gift to American blacks

I just returned from seeing Disney’s latest release, The Princess and the Frog. Looked at purely from an entertainment standpoint, the movie is a delight. The hand drawn animation is imaginative and, at times, exquisitely beautiful. When the Bayou lights up at sunset with fireflies, every little girl in the audience emits a rapturous “oooooh.” The music, which Randy Newman composed, is a high energy blend of New Orleans jazz, Cajun zydeco and friendly pop. You won’t leave the movie theater being able to sing any of the songs (those types of songs seem to have been banished from movies forever), but your brain will definitely be happy with the melodies that zip around, lighting up various synapses.

As for the storyline, that’s where the real magic lies. But to explain just how magical it is, I need to back up a little bit. In pre-1960s America, the black community was sorely beaten down. I don’t need to recite here the insults, indignities and limitations that came with Jim Crow. Even outside of the South, black opportunities for economic advancement were limited, and blacks were routinely subjected to demeaning treatment. Unsurprisingly, in the first half of the 20th century, American blacks beat out white Americans in every negative indicator: compared to whites, black communities had more crime, more illegitimacy, more illiteracy and much, much more poverty.

Despite these severe, externally imposed limitations on the American black community, throughout the early 20th century the story of American blacks was one that showed an upward trajectory. (Although, thinking about it, maybe that resilience isn’t a surprise. Just as the body strengthens only when it is exposed to resistance, it may be true that a community often finds strength if it must push back against hardship.) The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the Chicago Renaissance in the 1950s revealed a black community that had a ferocious pride and intellectualism.

Economic opportunities were also opening up. For example, a job as a Pullman Porter provided an economic pathway to the middle class for those black man able to make the sacrifice of being on the road all the time. Between decent (for blacks) salaries and good tips, the men who held those jobs could provide for their families. The same job allowed blacks, formerly blinkered by geographic limitations, to see larger possibilities, both social and economic, in the world around them. Blacks were also leaving an indelible musical mark on American culture, one that elevated their status amongst young whites, who were the up-and-coming generation.

Looking at the strides blacks were making, in education, in employment, and in culture, it is obvious that the Civil Rights movement didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was the logical trajectory for an increasingly educated, empowered, sophisticated American black community.

One of the bizarre legacies of the Civil Rights movement, however, wasn’t the continued economic and social ascendancy of American blacks. Instead, the Civil Rights signaled the reverse, which was the destruction of many sectors of the African American community. I don’t say this to denigrate the important rights the movement affirmed belong to all Americans or the benefits that flowed to all of America from the recognition of black civil rights. American law now properly ensures that blacks (and all races) have equal access to every available opportunity America has to offer. Blacks, rightly, cannot be denied food, shelter, education or employment because of their skin color. The same movement, however, that affirmed that all men are indeed created equal, also cheated blacks in ways no one anticipated back in 1964.

In the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights bill, well-meaning liberals fanned out throughout black communities and told black people that, rather than working, they should take government handouts. As they explained it to blacks who had clawed their way up the first few rungs of the economic ladder by relying on self-reliance and community pride, these government funds weren’t really handouts at all. Instead, they were an appropriate form of retribution for the free labor blacks provided in America for hundreds of years. By making this pitch to blacks to give up self-reliance and become dependent on the government, blacks were first introduced to, and then embraced, the notion that, since slavery was work, all work is slavery. Work was no longer the measure of a man’s (or a woman’s) worth. It was a symbol of oppression, and therefore to be avoided.

The same held true in the world of education. In an effort to jumpstart the black community on the path to professionalism, the guilt-ridden white middle class skipped the obvious, which was to focus its efforts on family, culture and early childhood education. Instead, it decided that the best thing to do was to give adult blacks a free-ish path to the best educational institutions in America. In the short run, it seemed like a brilliant idea, since we all know that a Harvard degree opens doors. In the long run, it was a disaster. As I wrote in my post about Barack Obama’s affirmative action presidency:

[I]f you set the standards lower for one racial group than for others, three things will happen: First, the race that has the lower hurdles will stop trying as hard. After all, humans are rational creatures, and people working toward a goal are wise to work only as hard as they need, and no harder. Why expend energy unnecessarily?

Second, those members of the race who are fully capable of competing without a handicap will also behave rationally and conserve their energy, because it’s the smart thing to do. This means that the lower hurdles will deprive them of the psychological opportunity to stretch and prove themselves.

Third, a lot of people who would not normally have been in the race at all will bob up to the top, thanks to that handicap. Worse, if there is a critical mass of mediocrity floating along on this tide of affirmative action, those mediocre people will inevitably, through sheer numbers, become representative of the racial group. In other words, if you give enough mediocre people in a specific racial group a head start so that they win, it looks as if all the winners from that particular racial group are mediocre.

The above realities mean that you end up with two dire situations for the racial group that affirmative action is infantilizing: First, an enormous number of useless people become very poor representatives of their race. And second, people who are genuinely good and deserving of recognition end up being thrown in the hopper of useless beneficiaries who achieved high status without ability or effort.

So, in a generation, American blacks went from being a community that was forced at whip’s end to give away its labor for free, to one that was assured that there was true virtue in getting money for nothing. Likewise, the American black community that was for so long denied the opportunity to educate itself, learned that it could now get the degrees without bothering with the education. Inevitably, America ended up with a black community that, at the thickest part of the bell curve, is averse to expending any effort to make money or learn. Why bother, after all? Common sense tells American blacks that money and meaningless degrees will come their way regardless of effort.

The result of post-Civil Rights liberal meddling is 40+ years of learned helplessness in the black community, and the profound sense of inferiority that goes along with that kind of helplessness. Blacks can talk about “Black pride,” and celebrate Black History month, but the savvy ones know it’s a sham. Their wings have been clipped. Pride comes from effort and achievement, not from largesse handed out by guilty white liberals. (Incidentally, if anyone is getting the wrong idea at about this point, I am not arguing that blacks are inferior. I believe that blacks are in every respect equal to whites, or any other race. I am arguing that the legacy of the American Civil Rights movement is a black community that has been trained to be helpless and that therefore views itself as inferior.)

And that’s where The Princess and the Frog comes in. Early Disney fairy tales assured young girls that if they were very meek and worked hard to serve others, they would succeed. (Snow White and Cinderella, for example.) At least one movie emphasized sleep as a useful virtue (that would be Sleeping Beauty). In recent years, girls have been encouraged to be feisty and to rebel against whatever it is their life happens to be. (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Mulan spring to mind.)

While the more recent movies have a much less passive message than the old ones (and I’m not knocking the old ones; I love them), they still don’t offer much in the way of life advice. Rebellion, pretty much for the sake of rebellion, is not a useful tool. This is especially true for the black community, which has locked itself in a victim mentality that routinely sees its members cutting off their noses to spite their faces, just to make the point that the white establishment can boss them around. The relentless push for ebonics education, a sure way to keep blacks mired in the ghetto and out of the money jobs, is a perfect illustration of this reactive, rather than proactive, tendency.

The Princess and the Frog, however, offers an entirely new message: Find your talent, pick a goal, and work really, really hard. Oh, and find support in your family values and your community. And also . . . don’t rely on other people. You are responsible for your own success. If obstacles stand in your way, don’t give up. Keep going . . . and going . . . and going.

It’s rather embarrassing that this obvious life lesson — find a goal, work hard, and stay focused — had to come from a paternalistic white corporation. Regardless of the source, however, the lesson is an important one for all people. And, sadly, it’s an especially important one for youngsters in the black community, all of whom have been told for more than forty years that they way to get ahead is to be first in line at the government hand-out center.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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