I see the anger in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Akron and Los Angeles over recent police killings of unarmed Black men. I see the pain and I know it’s real. I’ve been there, having lived through a horror show in 1990 when a young Black man was killed in Teaneck, New Jersey by a white police officer. The hurt and exasperation I hear in the voices of Black people in Ferguson was how I sounded when I consoled Phillip Pannell’s friend as I accompanied him to Phillip’s funeral almost 25 years ago. There were no words that could mask my pain as we both sat crying in an empty church, Phillip’s body in a casket as we awaited his funeral service to begin.
The pain is real and the healing, well, let’s say you never heal. You simply learn to manage the pain. Yet, what I have come to understand is that in all these instances of inhumanity Black people must develop strategies to recover and reclaim their sense of self and dignity. For all the condemnation of the understandable rage that has exploded in Ferguson, it is the feeling of being outcasts in their own community that is the source of most of the anger among residents of the city. What has been little discussed is the infrastructure for change that must be created if Black people are to exercise their right to life and dignity; not only in Ferguson but in communities across the country.
Let me offer a few observations on steps we should take to combat the institutional racism that infests our nation and causes grave injury to us, particularly harming our children.
Support independent Black owned media
Social media and the backbone of the Internet have proven keys in transmitting the story of Ferguson, Katrina, Jena 6 and other flashpoints. It is why ‘Net Neutrality’ must become part of our collective vocabulary and why the battle before the FCC to keep open access to the Internet should be on our radar. We need independent news and public affairs websites (like NorthStarNews.com) and the Black press continues to be underutilized and undercapitalized assets. Support means financial support; writing a check or buying a subscription. These enterprises can grow if we show them the same deference we show white owed media. Traditional media has proven time and again to be incapable of equity in news coverage and opinion reporting. We must have our own news outlets to make certain our story is told.
Our Money Matters
African-Americans have tremendous purchasing power. Data consistently cites Black spending relative to some of the most economically powerful nations. The problem is we consume and do not spend our dollars strategically. We have the consumer power to affect the private market and sufficient resources to support Black-owned businesses. Yet, we use our money against us; too often rewarding companies that have poor track records in hiring Blacks and contracting with Black businesses or selling products that are adverse to our health. Similarly, we treat our own enterprises as radioactive. Case in point, the Black press. If we made a conscious effort to buy Black newspapers we would boost their attractiveness to advertisers and in turn help those papers grow and create more jobs. We would also help sustain a communications infrastructure that would pay huge dividends by informing our community and educating us on the critical issues of the day. Our money also matters in terms of supporting Black organizations that are working to uplift our community. If we each chose three organizations to be recipients of our largesse we could strengthen groups that are working to advance our interest.
Change starts from the bottom up
It is the practice during crises for the Black community to seek out ‘national’ leaders who can bring the media spotlight to the incident at hand. This is of momentary value and never results in sustained action or substantive change. We must remember that true change is seeded at the grassroots. The Montgomery bus boycott, sustained for a year, was a local movement. Voting rights for Blacks in southern states was secured through community action, such as the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party. Ella Baker trained young people at the grassroots and groups like CORE, during its heyday, focused on organizing locally. We must respect and support community organizing because it is the real source of change.
National organizations frame the larger policy debate
It’s really past time to stop the hating on groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League. Yes, there is a real necessity to reform the inner workings of these two stalwart civil rights groups. Still, any institution that survives a century is worth saving. Membership is a bargain in these organizations and our increased participation would greatly increase the impact of these groups. There are other groups on the landscape such as Color of Change that serve as valuable tools to address systemic inequities. We cannot fight these battles on the basis of individual leadership. No group in this country has been able to do so. Institutions matter and the sooner we understand that, the farther we will be on the road to full citizenship and liberation.
Elections have consequences
Do I really have to explain? Reflect on the 1968 and 2000 presidential elections or a myriad of state and local races where outcomes hinged on tight races. We can bash the system all we want but it’s the system that is kicking our ass. There are real winners and losers in elections, and if we learn to make electoral accountability our mantra, we will begin to see measurable differences in policy formation. Congress and the Supreme Court do not look like they do by accident. By not voting and not participating we are essentially giving power away.
Hold leadership accountable
This applies to the advocacy community and elected officials. Too often we get caught up in the cult of celebrity and forget that leadership has consequences. We spend too much time worshipping our leaders and fail to hold them accountable. More of our attention needs to be turned toward determining the effectiveness of those we have chosen to lead. Leadership should not be window dressing and we should feel no obligation to extend our support to ineffective leaders. This principle has serious consequences in local government where we generally give elected officials carte blanche in the face of our absence.
These are but a few of the considerations I believe important to the conversation on where we go as a community in the aftermath of the Michael Brown tragedy. We must turn the pain of the experiences of Black men in America into an affirmative movement to declare our intention to claim our full rights under the law.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.
Contact Walter Fields, firstname.lastname@example.org.