Busing protest in Boston on April 5, 1976 (picture by Stanley Forman of the now defunct Boston Herald American)
In ten years, the United States will celebrate its 250th anniversary and judging by how the nation marked its 200th milestone, it will be a spectacle of over-exaggerated exuberance. For people of African descent, native African-Americans and immigrants of the Diaspora, the coming anniversary can only be measured by our nation’s past, our status relative to white Americans post-slavery, and the continual challenge we face affirming our rights as citizens in this country. It is one thing to mark the nation’s founding, quite another to have a truthful accounting of its resistance to enabling democracy in the manner prescribed by its two principal charters – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
In many ways the present climate in our nation, brewing for the last five decades, says more about the measure of our ‘progress’ since 1776 than any hype over our approaching anniversary. Though the United States is a literal infant-nation when compared to our global peers, the muscularity of the nation through its political and economic might has made it one of the most powerful nation-states in the history of humankind. And that power, that strength has been built upon the exploitation of enslaved Africans, their descendants, indigenous Indians and the violent capture of native lands. There can be no legitimate telling of the American story without the acknowledgment of the hypocrisy of the inhumanity employed under the guise of securing freedom from the tyrannical rule of a monarch. The real narrative of our independence is tragic. We could have reached the same point where we stand today, and likely a more advanced state, without the trampling of human rights.
For African-Americans, this pre-anniversary ten-year window needs to be a period of deep introspection. Our seemingly endless struggle to attain basic human rights in the United States and our daily battle for dignity and respect should cause us to reconsider how we pursue this elusive thing called freedom. We have been stuck for some time in a revolving door; seeking an exit that is dependent upon the largesse of a society that stubbornly clings to white supremacy, even in the face of that dying brand worldwide. In the process we spend more time seeking accommodations than structural change, and wind up accepting minor concessions that do little to fundamentally change the dynamics of economic and political power in our country. Our posture is one of dependency, and this weakness is exploited by those who exercise white privilege for the purpose of maintaining the historical domination of Blacks and people of color in the United States.
The time has come for the African-American community to re-assess our political engagement, economic status, faith practices and our relationship with Black youth. We have relied too long on antiquated models that are only sufficient if we are satisfied with maintaining a compromised existence in this nation. Our thinking must evolve from one of “minority” status to that of equal and shared authority, in contemplation of a majority of color in the United States. If we do not attack structural racism in this country the very resistance we see today will harden systemically and we will enable the apartheid we witnessed in South Africa take root in America, with a white minority controlling the institutions of political and economic power.
Our political engagement since Reconstruction has been based upon aligning with a political party that will inflict the least harm upon us. By operating in this manner, the gradualism we claim as victories, such as civil rights legislation that should not be necessary if the rights embedded in the Constitution were fairly applied, have always left us in a deficit; needing and wanting more in our demand for full citizenship. The irony of the Reconstruction constitutional amendments is that there would have been no need for them if whites in power had put into practice the principles behind our democracy. The need for legislative remedies is simply because there has never been a serious demolition of white supremacy, no matter what political party African-Americans aligned with at any particular moment. We are still battling the remnants of the Civil War because many whites do not believe Blacks are their equal and whites claim ownership of a country that their ancestors gained control of through violence, manipulations and deceit. It is why the cry of “take back our country” from many whites is steeped in ignorance and unearned privilege.
Blacks find ourselves marginalized by our yearning to be ‘recognized’ and our mistaken belief that partisanship by itself will yield a change in our condition. For many of us it is more important to be identified as a Democrat or a Republican than to establish a real independence and flexibility in how we use our political assets. The partisan seesaw we ride momentarily lifts us, but ultimately brings us down. Our nation’s democratic model advantages interests that can parlay votes and money into political leverage. We undermine our power when we simply yield our votes to one party and demand nothing from its major opposition, and pay little attention to alternative parties or alternative means to exercise power.
In many ways we suffer from the same ailment economically. Our self-perception of our economic power has left us diminished and beholden to institutions that will gladly use our labor, take our money, and then use it against us. Despite some progress in placement in industry and elevation to management, and a few instances of executive appointment, the American corporate structure famously exploits our consumer zeal and encourages our indebtedness. We have been far too lax in building institutions and using our buying power to impact pricing and the delivery of goods and services to our community. We deem ‘success’ as achieving a title within a corporation, and the symbolic trappings that come with it, rather than wielding economic power to transform the production process, demand fair wages and end the exploitation of labor here and abroad. If Black consumers simply stopped buying one product and shifted to a competitor product, our economic power would be evident. Instead we never relate what we buy off the shelf to how that manufacturer operates in terms of land use issues, its influence in public policy through its political engagement, its labor practices and environmental impact. In most instances we are buying our own degradation.
In the same vein our faith practices, particularly in the Christian church, have become hollow and increasingly narcissistic. Our fascination with entertainment has bled into worship, and the appearance of our worship has taken on a scripted air buried under bright lights, stadium seating, technology and hucksterism that rivals the midway at a state fair. The very essence of what faith implies – the belief in the uplift of humanity and the responsibility of service to others in deference to a higher power who is the beginning and the end, has been replaced by men and women as deities, presiding over fiefdoms that serve the interests of its titular leaders and exploits those the Creator called upon his church to serve – in fact the masses are the ‘church’ that is to be led to salvation.
And our engagement with Black you must begin with a recognition that these times are unlike no other. What Black children are encountering today is an insidious and embedded racism that has seeped through the crevices of all of our institutions. It is viral and aided by technology, and it is fluid, able to shape shift to fit the form of any structure as needed to preserve white entitlement. Our children are under assault and we need to have a different conversation regarding what they experience on a daily basis, and what they need to do to be liberated as adults. We must stop buying into the labeling and deficit characterization of Black youth because it has made many Black adults complicit in the destruction of Black children. While many of us critique the style of dress of Black youth, particularly the practice of boys ‘sagging’ their pants, we won’t confront the fact that well attired Black adults have been hung from trees, killed by police, wrongly arrested and discriminated against in the workplace. We can help Black children by first acknowledging their suffering, and then developing a new strategy of resistance and uplift for their healthy development.
The hard truth is that what the status of African-Americans will be in 2026 is a greater unknown than our prospects were in 1966 ten years before the Bicentennial. And that should concern us deeply.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.