It strikes me that over the course of history, American and otherwise, the success or failure of movements often turns on the precision with which the essential motivating problem is articulated. Today, we often frame the unique issues facing the African-American community within the familiar, and somewhat outmoded, infrastructure of civil rights.
We have to stop doing this.
By speaking of the challenges we face in this way, we inadvertently de-emphasize their significance because many people, both within and outside the black community, see our ongoing battle for equal protection under the law (among others) as one that has already been waged and concluded on terms mostly beneficial to African-Americans. And although many of our community’s demands fall under the general rubric of civil rights, I’d argue that the key to mobilizing the critical mass of folks necessary for our voices to effect change is the development of a more narrowly-tailored characterization of our problem. To be sure, we’re still fighting to gain access to fair and affordable housing, for equal treatment at the hands of law enforcement officials and yes, in some cases, for the ability to vote—but the web of challenges we face today is, in some ways, a few degrees more convoluted because those controlling access to the institutions that confer the means of upward economic and social mobility (hereafter, I’ll refer to these folks as the Bad Guys) have spent the last half-century crafting and perfecting legal (and therefore, all the more insidious) means of restricting minority populations’ access to opportunity. And ironically—yes, it hurts to say this, but I must—this problem is exacerbated by the success of a fortunate few.
How so, you ask?
You see, the Bad Guys use the success of a handful of African-Americans as proof positive that the institutional side-effects of racism in America have been hunted down, rooted out and overwhelmingly eliminated. How else, the Bad Guys argue, do you explain the meteoric ascension of a Barack Obama, a Deval Patrick, a Sonia Sotomayor, a Bob Johnson, a Dick Parsons or a Ken Chenault?
This argument is, of course, totally ridiculous. But more important than its ridiculousness is the wicked premise on which it stands: “If these guys made it, then something must be wrong with the rest of you.” In short, the success of a handful is used at once to (i) prove the absence of racism as a material barrier to black and brown success stories and (ii) confirm that the failure of “the rest” is due to some generalized personal or cultural shortcoming rather than the still-flourishing forms of insidious racism that have evolved to thrive, perhaps more than ever, in the only place where they can successfully breathe and reproduce: in the long shadows of the law.
I really have to give it up for the Bad Guys—I mean, this is brilliant stuff. They’ve effectively seized upon a means of preserving the status quo within the confines of laws enacted for the express purpose of eliminating such means. And here’s the icing on the cake: they’ve sold, and millions of Americans (including some African-Americans) have bought, the tale that any continuing discrepancy between the success of Johnny and Jamal is strictly the consequence of a corresponding difference in their respective will and ability.
Follow me here…I promise I’m going somewhere.
Now do you see why characterizing the struggle as one for civil rights falls woefully short of articulating the nature of the 2016 problem?
Several years ago Aaron McGruder, the exceedingly brilliant creator of the colorful animated series The Boondocks, spent an entire episode exploring the question of how MLK might react to the state of affairs in the African-American community were he alive today. McGruder’s MLK is thoroughly disappointed to find that his people—in particular youth—have essentially lost their damned minds, focused almost exclusively on devising the most efficient means of acquiring the best and bling-iest depreciating assets rather than the development of their most valuable assets, their hearts and minds.
While McGruder’s take may not have gone far enough in explaining the role of the troublesome socio-economic programmes enacted by state and local governments in galvanizing the sort of learned helplessness which in many cases leads to the kind of black political apathy both McGruder and I find so apocalyptic, I’ve since come to believe that his omission of anti-establishment grumbling wasn’t an oversight. And while I could be wrong—I’ve never met Mr. McGruder—I’m pretty sure he did so hoping that we’d recognize the omission and ask ourselves the question “why?”
Here’s my best guess: The complaints of those who take no action to improve their circumstances are almost as deplorable as the highly-evolved means used by their oppressors to keep them right where they are.
What if I told you that the entirety of the Bad Guys’ plot to keep you down is premised on the expectation and hope that we continue to do what we’ve been doing: complaining without doing. There’s a term for doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result…
Here’s the relevant news flash: we’ve got to change the way we talk about the problem, but we’ve also got to do something big to solve it. The bad news is that we’ve got a long way to go in rolling back the barriers the Bad Guys have artfully reconstructed since November 2008—many of which are imperceptible to the naked eye—to legally thwart the economic and political empowerment of black and brown people. But I’m so very happy to report that there’s some awfully good news here too. If we vote, not just in presidential elections, but also in the infinitely more important Congressional elections coming conveniently to a precinct near you every two years, we can make changes almost overnight. So the next time you hear folks like New Jersey Governor—and Republican presidential candidate—Chris Christie refer to the leader of the free world as a “petulant child” (note: “child” is a thinly-veiled euphemism for another term used not so long ago for…well, you know) whose rear-end he intends to kick, don’t just use this as evidence that racism is still alive and well in America, and don’t just get raving mad. Go one important step further—send the video clip to ten of your friends who don’t vote and articulate with urgency why we cannot afford to continue along this path of political apathy. All things being equal, I’d prefer that my grandchildren not have to fight yet another iteration of the battles my grandparents fought fifty years ago.
Yesterday, during a small gathering, one of my best friends asked each of us to articulate our most deeply held belief. For whatever reason, the discussion moved into another direction before I had an opportunity to respond. So I’ll answer the question now by articulating Newton’s First Law: “An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.” And I’ll tell you something else, and you can take this one to the bank and cash it: the Bad Guys are betting we were sleeping in physics class. I know I was, but naptime is over…let’s show them that the Good Guys are wide awake now.