today in black history

November 20, 2017

Inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan receives a patent for the traffic light in 1923.

Institutions can Rebut Racism

POSTED: June 20, 2018, 12:00 pm

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Every day the weariness and fear of our nation plays out across the millions of social media posts that bemoan the state of our political leaders in Washington D.C. The person-hours spent reacting to every outrageous tweet or comment coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is time that could be better spent. Trump-watching has become a national sport with a legion of participants and that many more spectators. It is reality television in real time and with real implications. The man who gave us Celebrity Apprentice is treating citizens as if they are cast members, and easily disposing of those who refuse to lavish praise upon his fragile ego.

It’s a show that we must learn to turn off but not tune out. There must be a shift in the resistance strategy that makes institution building the primary work engaged to turn this country around. No amount of television sound bites, snarky memes or evangelical-like appeals in political speeches will turn the tide in America. What is required is the real work of organizing on the ground and strengthening existing institutions to be the frontline forces to counter the swelling ranks of bigots and racists who feel emboldened in this present hour.

For folks who profess to be progressive or dare I say liberal, advocacy has been reduced to celebrating celebrity outrage, participating in one-off mass demonstrations that lack strategic direction, or participating in the echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter. Resistance has become passive, lacking the fervor and confrontation of the civil rights movement and anti-war movement of the Vietnam War era. Where in the 1960s protesters considered being arrested a badge of honor, today’s resistance revels in selfies and Instagram posts with hash tags confirming participation. The event, not even the issue, is often the focal point of protest today.

Meanwhile, existing institutions are dying on the vine or struggling to remain relevant in this age of entrepreneurial advocacy. I don’t fully blame the public because institutions have failed to keep pace with the changing demands of a diverse population. Too many institutions have become stagnant, mired in bureaucracy or resistant to change, and their natural constituents have grown weary of waiting for organizations to reinvigorate their missions. Despite these shortcomings, institutions that support and fight for progressive policies are an effective counter to the extremism we are witnessing today.

For Black Americans, that means reinvigorating our churches and confronting their absence from the social justice battleground. It also means laypersons taking back control of their church’s mission and demanding church leadership adopt a more community-focused perspective. The Black church collective is an institution of tremendous resources and power; when used unselfishly and it is intentional in its work to uplift Black people. It is also one of the only Black institutions, perhaps the only, that is truly independent in that it owns its property and controls its finances.

Another institution that should command our attention and support is our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). They represent an intellectual foundation that can utilize its scholarly resources to problem-solve and use evidenced based approaches to find solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing the Black community. HBCU’s can also be economic engines that play an important role in recasting the economic fortunes of our community. My Alma mater, Morgan State University, just released a report from an independent firm that detailed the university’s $1 billion contribution to Maryland’s economy. All HBCUs should commission similar studies to show the ‘business case’ for their campuses and the need for further investment in their institutions.

The ambivalence toward traditional civil rights institutions is understandable. They have been slow to abandon antiquated methods of operation, and slower to put forth agendas or campaigns that yield real impacts that improve the quality of life of Blacks. It’s not just a question of these institutions becoming more youthful. Bringing younger voices to the table is critically important but just as important is making these organizations relevant for the 21st century. If our traditional civil rights infrastructure cannot adapt to today’s more fast-paced, technologically driven and results-focused advocacy, it should be dismantled. We need institutions that are flexible, resilient and structured in a way that they can provide a rapid response at critical moments.

While we return to our institutions, organizations must develop a willingness to collaborate. We have been having the same conversations, expressing the same outrage, at the same conventions and national meetings for decades – and it has yielded nothing. The first step should be for some of our organizations to either consolidate their annual conventions or forego them altogether and reinvest the savings into street-level efforts. At a minimum, Black organizations should stop forking over millions to hotel chains for a week of excess and schedule their conferences at HBCUs that have the capacity to host such events.

The point of all of this is that we cannot fight systemic racism with individual effort. We waste precious energy and exhaust ourselves when we respond as individuals to incidents of racism that are the product of racist structures. Our only hope is to strengthen and reinforce those institutions that are best suited to dismantle the very systems of white supremacy that oppress black and brown people.


Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.

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