Monday, November 30, 2009

Whither the Black Activist - Part II

[Sorry for the delay, but I've been busy. hope this doesn't bore you]
Whither The Black Activist? – Part II

The first part of this essay dealt with the American political landscape in which the black activist must now operate, contextualized by the Obama election and presidency. In my estimation (and I am certainly not the only one) the administration, by virtue of its blackness, has the effect of narrowing the debate on substantive racial matters but more importantly almost totally negates vibrant debate of the country’s heinous, militarist mindset.

Moreover, in the public’s eye, the election of Obama has settled the question of race and the country’s history of oppression. The genocide of the Native American, the African-American Maafa (holocaust) and the century of apartheid are distant memories that presumably have no current impact or lasting effect on today’s society.
With this being said, the most pressing question going forward for American progressives in general and for this writer and African-Americans in particular is what are the next steps? What strategic issues must we confront and generally speaking, how do we go about it?

As black activists we have a significant history and legacy from which to learn and critique. There are problems which we have overcome – domestic terror and unjust discriminatory laws – but we still are faced with seemingly intractable impediments – family breakdown, poverty, educational achievement and internecine violence – that seem beyond our capacity to solve.

There’s a great deal to be said about American foreign policy and we need to do everything possible (nonviolently) to reverse the current, accepted premise: the notion, rooted in white supremacy, that the U.S. has the exclusive right to invade, intervene or occupy any sovereign nation that it deems a threat (or in reality has natural resources that our country covets). American “empire” as fait accompli isn’t acceptable to the rest of civilization, nor should it be. There are so many reasons that militate against such a wicked worldview, not the least of which is the military’s unsustainable and unproductive drain on the economy.

But with respect to the black activist, I’d like to focus specifically on domestic concerns that plague too many African American communities. Certainly from a national perspective, the idea of reparations for the 240 plus years of enslavement and the subsequent century of legal oppression simply must be addressed. Not “committing those crimes anymore” is one thing and the political actions, civil disobedience and violent resistance that ended slavery and American apartheid were absolutely necessary. However, there has been no significant payment, restitution or investment to the aggrieved people or their progeny for the crimes against their humanity.

We must create an effective movement for reparations that has two fundamental aspects: significant resources and self-determination. A lack of either element will ensure unsuccessful or meaningless outcomes.

Several attempts to create such a movement include the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association led by Sister Callie House in the early 1900s and the more recent activities of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). Without going into the reasons for the previous failures, I think the time is long past due for a strategy that is state focused. In such a scenario, black activists in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, for example (former confederate, terrorist states) would organize and bring pressure on state authorities to address the historically unequal and oppressive treatment of its black citizens. Texas, Louisiana and other southern municipalities must be called to task and made to answer for the billions of dollars worth of education, health care, job opportunities and access to capital, withheld from blacks for decades. The cumulative resultant of multiple state lawsuits, demonstrations and political agitation could be a national requiem on race and social justice.

As important as the reparations issue is, what I think is overlooked by black activists today on the domestic front is the degree to which local decision making can be impacted. In cities around the country, African American often times have significant if not majority political representation. I’m from Philadelphia so let me use it as an example. This city has 655,000 people who identify themselves as African Americans (43% of the population) as well as seven black members of city council out of fifteen. Not to mention, for the past ten years, there has been a black mayor.

Unfortunately, the poverty rate in Philadelphia for black people is over 30%, unemployment is 15% (and twice that for black teens), the dropout rate for high school students is over 25% and 70% of the Philadelphia prison population is black! With significant segments of its population in precarious straits, one might ask, has the black community (or its elected leadership) developed a plan for addressing these monumental problems? If you see it, let me know.

Philadelphia’s operating budget is approximately four billion dollars with three billion more allocated for airport, water department and capital expenses. The Philadelphia School District is another three billion. Throw in the budgets of the housing authority, parking authority, Delaware River Port Authority and we’re literally talking about multi-billions in government and quasi-government funds – funds generated from taxes and fees that black folks contribute to. So again, with large segments of the African American community suffering and so many dollars at stake, why isn’t there a plan or several plans available on how these funds are to be used for the improvement of black communities? Cat got your tongue?

I don’t think Philadelphia is alone in this regard. What it shows though is a sort of mental lethargy on the part of local black political leadership – a lack of purpose, creative thinking and expertise that is disconnected from knowledge of our history and our legacy of struggle. There’s a lot more that can be said about this but it should be sufficient to note that not effectively organizing to impact the distribution of local public resources defies any notions of common sense and logic.
In early November the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front page investigative report on the city of Camden, New Jersey and how more than 175 million dollars had been squandered over the past decade despite the oversight of a state appointed administrator. This disgusting story mirrors what has transpired in Philadelphia, pitiful Detroit and other largely black populated cities. And, it segues well into the next general grievance with respect to what our people could and should be doing for themselves and the broader African American community. That is to say how black activism should be manifest in this millennium.

In many big cities, there are black professionals engaged in decision making, project and budget management and the development and implementation of programs that ostensibly are to improve the lot of the least of our brethren. But, far too often initiatives created to solve or at least ameliorate problems do little in terms of approaching the intended goals.

I’m not talking about run of the mill corruption, nepotism and ineptitude we’ve come to associate with local governance, although that is often a material factor. What bothers me even more as a person who has spent over twenty years in the public/government sector is how supposedly educated people adopt and administer programs and policies that don’t work nor have any chance of doing so. We have been so conditioned and miseducated to treat symptomatic issues in fragmented, uncoordinated ways without any concern for the outcome of a project, that we are often satisfied with paltry results and hence oblivious to the unfinished work left before us.

While others in powerful places may determine national policies calculated to return nothing to the poor, we professionals on the local front participate in a sort of endless, pointless menagerie of grant driven programs that never solve or change anything of consequence. Although we may be keenly aware of the needs of neighborhoods and the people living there, we’re unable to effectively speak for them and demand the resources and the types of initiatives that may begin to lift people from their miserable conditions.

There are too many examples our of commitment to unproductive work to cite here but just a few that come to mind are the juvenile justice initiatives in Pennsylvania and the sham associated with small business development. In this state, there is a government agency charged with reducing juvenile delinquent behavior and advocating for victims of juvenile crime. A few years ago an article appeared in Philadelphia’s major newspaper stating that the city received less than 5% of the more than 20 million in grant dollars for youth crime prevention from the agency. Philly however accounted for more than half of the youth violent crimes in the state! The article was clearly politically motivated to undermine the John Street administration and it claimed that the reason for the city’s few grant awards was the poor proposal submissions. But no one, not the Negro professionals in the agency nor the politicians questioned the credibility of a multi-million dollar agency charged with reducing youth crime. Whatever the reason, this agency had failed miserably! Its mission was not to develop and manage a great grant writing exercise – it was and is to provide resources to help stem the growth of violent crime among young people!!

Consider also the entire gambit referred to as small business development. If one were to look at results or outcomes the whole notion of the Small Business Administration would be scrapped. It should come as no surprise that our neighborhoods look the way they do. We’ve known for years that access to capital is the major determinant for starting a business and yet we support and encourage programs that make that process difficult if not debilitating. Major banks don’t even recognize 10-25 thousand dollars as a small business loan, yet this is what we call it in the nonprofit world. And, in many economic development and ghetto entrepreneurial programs, aspiring business owners have to undergo stringent, complicated application processes to access not enough start-up money to get through their first year of operation.

These are just a few examples of programs and policies that sound nice, but are not intended to accomplish much or solve anything. The problem is that African American “professionals” know about these things, participate in their creation and are often responsible for their implementation. Educated people of color sat around watching millions of dollars wasted in Camden, as they’ve done in Philadelphia. Still others know of the situation regarding the Pennsylvania juvenile justice agency and refuse to address it.

No planning, no serious results oriented programming and with respect to the two most basic issues affecting a people, that of family and education, we’re in the twilight zone. It’s almost as if we know less about how to development strong families and educate our people now than we did fifty years ago. Let’s face it, we’ve pretty much resigned ourselves into thinking that we can’t teach third graders! That’s a sick, but fairly accurate assessment. The number of black children growing up without fathers is frightening. We can stand in front of a press conference and pontificate about the deleterious impact single parenthood has but what about coming up with purposeful policy that may help the situation, not a chance.

Ask however, an educated Negro how they might go about marketing a new sneaker to young people or a television program on fashion or some other bullshit and they become as creative and brilliant as one could imagine. Ideas for the saving the lives of our children – not a clue. In the former cases, it’s the bottom line that is at stake. What’s at stake for our children and communities? I don’t watch nearly as much television as I have in the past but I recently saw a national ad about talking to your kids about drugs. You’ve probably seen it also. If black folk were polled and asked what were the top two or three issues burdening communities of color, using drugs might not be one but my sense is violence, education and perhaps fatherhood (I hope) would be suggested. The point is that changing people’s attitudes about some of these things is critical to our survival but why are there no communications media addressing them? Constantly and consistently!! Why must our people only hear or see what is the next thing they should buy? Shouldn’t young black boys hear messages about fatherhood on the radio in the midst of listening to their favorite rap song?

You know, right now we have the wherewithal to change some of this. There are enough of us in positions of power and many more who by virtue of just being alive can demand greater accountability from of our local representatives, businesses and ourselves, and make the institutions and policies we live with much more effective, empowering and life enhancing. The one thing that is worse than the social maladies effecting our youth and communities is our total inability to address them. Radicalism + common sense = Black Power. Let’s get up and do something – for real. Peace.
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