We can only imagine the moment when some slaves and whites of conscience determined that to live under the “peculiar institution” was simply a form of living-death. The same must have held true for Blacks in the post-Reconstruction period and African-Americans living under the terror and violence of Jim Crow. At some point the human spirit refuses to be oppressed and the body rejects being dehumanized, even if the resistance results in death. It is a powerful moment of truth and self-empowerment.
This past week, some of us experienced that moment. We watched as the highest court in the nation, tragically labeled “supreme,” whittled away at our gains with surgical precision. And adding injury to injury, the culprits included an African-American, proving that skin-folk doesn’t equate with kinfolk. The Supreme Court made clear their intent to disallow the use of race in affirmative action, pigeonholed victims of workplace discrimination, and gutted the enforcement mechanism of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. After decades of trying to preserve balance and decency on the Court, the leak turned into a flood and the dam finally burst. In a matter of three days conservatives on the Roberts Court managed to exceed the worst excesses of the Taney Court because this Supreme Court had the benefit of a century of struggle and tenuous social progress to inform its decision-making.
Just as alarming as the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc’s duplicity in the degradation of African-Americans, and their shoving us back to yesteryear, was the surreal scene playing out in the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of murdering teenage victim Trayvon Martin. Hearing Zimmerman’s attorney clumsily and insultingly use a ‘knock-knock’ joke during his opening statement put in clear terms how Black lives are trivialized. The sight of a bloated George Zimmerman, whose appearance we believe is purposely deceitful to try to convince the jury he was not physically capable of hurting Trayvon, adds to the insult. Then, to witness the young lady who was a key witness for the prosecution, and Trayvon’s friend, being ripped apart on the Internet for her less than masterful (presentation) use of the English language just poured more salt on an open wound. The police crime scene photographs of a dead Trayvon cut deep to the bone. No parent should experience the loss of a child who did nothing more than take a stroll through the neighborhood, skittles in hand.
What this current environment suggests is that African-Americans are at that point of critical decision; hearkening back to slavery, post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow. During those periods our response was one of resistance, fight and willingness to put our lives on the line, not just for our families but for future generations. The die has now been cast and we are confronted with our 21st century battle of the color line. We must decide, right now, at this moment, whether we are going to fight back or give up.
The signs could not be clearer and more pointed. Extremists oppose the registration of hand gun owners but insist that voters, in jurisdictions with large Black populations, submit to voter ID. Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports on an increase in hate group activity; and these groups are armed and identifying people of color as their targets. Though Blacks represent less than 5% of all doctors and lawyers in America, a white college applicant believes she has been wronged by her denial of admission to the University of Texas, blames it on the admission of African-Americans and challenges the university’s affirmative action policy. The nation’s highest Court then essentially tells the lower court that going forward the strictest standard of judicial scrutiny should be applied to the review of the use of race in affirmative action policy. And, by the way, the Court sends the message that race should only be considered if “race-neutral” policies can’t achieve the goal of diversity on campus. So, the Court begins to cut off the pipeline of Black professionals. Just as sinister the Court limits the ability to file lawsuits by employees who are victims of workplace retaliation for revealing discriminatory practices, and since there are few Black lawyers available to enjoin that fight (and will remain so since access to campuses is limited), equal opportunity in the workplace becomes a moot issue.
Against this backdrop we witness television chef Paula Deen, in all her Dixie glory, defend her use of nigger as a casual term in her course of conversation. When confronted we hear the usual “I am not a racist’ and witness the tearful apology asking us for forgiveness. And while sponsors drop her show and disassociate their brand from this southern belle, America responds by buying her book and moving it to the top of the bestseller list. The message: we could care less what niggers think.
This is where the rubber meets the road; the point of introspection and declaration of intent. The Black community has been paralyzed by decades of over-analysis and inaction. Every time an issue is raised, another research report is released and any attempt to take action is killed by the endless search for consensus. Fear has replaced conviction, and true leadership, the willingness to take risks, to be wrong, to accept the input of others in leadership, has been replaced by self-preservation and a thirst for validation by the very forces that are undermining our community. It is little wonder why African-Americans have fallen so far, so quickly. It is also the reality that should awaken us and motivate all of us to start the fight for justice anew. The African-American community must raise a new generation of warriors, strong in conviction and serious in purpose, and who understand that the most honorable service is to the greater good. We must regain our moral authority and again challenge America to be the country in deed that it purports to be in words.