Yesterday, the city of Baltimore held its Democratic primary for mayor and city council. According to coverage in the Baltimore Sun, voter turnout was abysmally low. The lackluster turnout came on the day that new Census data was released showing the nation’s poverty rate at its highest since 1993. It also came against the backdrop of an economic crisis that has devastated cities like Baltimore. What’s worse, overnight in the city a 16 year-old boy was murdered, shot in the head, as he walked down a street on Baltimore’s west side. Despite all these warning signs voters in Baltimore did not pause and take the few minutes required to cast their vote for their city’s leadership.
We only focus on Baltimore because that city’s voting is fresh in our minds. This is not just a Baltimore problem. The epidemic of complacency has struck across our country, and it is particularly acute in the African-American community. It is seemingly contagious, moving from community to community and leaving behind remnants of a once proud cultural identity that has given way to laziness and excuses. Ironically, in one month just a half hour down the road from Baltimore thousands will gather next month for the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, an honor for a visionary who saw voting as a moral and civic imperative. Now, we casually dismiss our civic duty, forgetting that so many people were killed so that could have the right to be full participants in our democracy.
Our frustration is heightened by the sense that we are in crisis and few seem to understand the depths of our despair, or simply don’t give a damn. Black men are being permanently removed from our society either through imprisonment, unemployment or death. Our young people are underperforming in school and being victimized by gang violence. Black women are struggling for economic empowerment while facing the daunting task of raising families on their own. Black neighborhoods resemble ghost towns, with abandoned housing, no jobs and where gangs decide who shall live. Our institutions, including the Black church, have been abandoned and some have been devastated by poor, unethical and misguided leadership. Our political leadership is too invested in personal survival and shows little of the courage exhibited by our leaders of yesteryear. We have become so invested in a cult of celebrity that we can’t distinguish between what’s real and what is not; too often falling prey to the 21st century version of the “medicine man.” At a time when we should be issuing a call to arms, too many of us are walking around clueless while our children are being destroyed and our community rots beneath us.
We can’t wait until the next presidential election to wake up. If anything, the election of the nation’s first Black president should have been a wake-up call, an alarm to motivate us to work even harder. It seems that just the opposite has occurred. We prematurely celebrated what we deemed a “victory,” when it was simply a course correction. Real change occurs from the bottom up. We should know that by now given the historical record. Slavery did not end because Lincoln signed a proclamation. It ended because abolitionists challenged an inherently evil system, and many Blacks revolted and also took up arms in the Civil War against the south. Jim Crow did not end because the nation suddenly saw the light and ended legal segregation. Separate and unequal was destroyed because millions of Blacks abandoned southern states in the Great Migration, the civil rights movement was spawned and Blacks hung from trees, children marched to jail and adults stood up to injustices until the promise of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution was fulfilled by our government. Change takes place when the oppressed take it upon themselves to confront the oppressor.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, time is running out. We may be in the midst of our last opportunity to reconstruct American society. If we do not shake our present malaise, we will have betrayed our ancestors and disgraced an incredible legacy of mankind; the ascension of a people brought to this nation in bondage who broke free of chains to ascend to heights many thought impossible. This should not and cannot be how this story ends.