“There is a ‘state of emergency’ without urgency in Black America,” writes Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
In a collection of essays and briefs, the IBW’s forthcoming “Black Paper” documents the progress – and lack of progress – made since the 1963 March on Washington and offers potential solutions to the problems afflicting Black America. The authors of the Black Paper say that the compilation is not an academic exercise, but “a call to action.”
Contributors recently discussed their findings at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington. The final product, A Deposit was Made but the Check Still Bounced, is expected to be published next month and will be available on IBW’s web site, http://www.ibw21.org.
Zachery Williams, coordinator of the IBW research consortium, and associate professor of history at the University of Akron in Ohio, said that the purpose of the IBW Black Paper was to suggest strategic directions for the future and to reignite movements for democracy and social change.
The title of the Black Paper is takeoff of a section of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” King said, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
“This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Williams explained, “Over the last 50 years, we argue that a deposit was made into the account by America, by providing relative ‘equality’ for some Black folks, but the check still bounced because it did not provide ‘equality’ for the overwhelming majority of Black folks.”
The collection examines the wealth gap, housing, education, health care, the criminal justice system and a number of key issues and recommended policy and stakeholder changes that would improve the lives of marginalized and poor Blacks in today’s society.
“We categorically reject the oft-repeated assertion that targeting conversation and analysis to Black people, or focusing on Black issues is politically incorrect in today’s “post-racial environment,” the executive summary of the IBW Black Paper states.
It continued: “IBW regards such distorted thinking as fundamentally flawed and incorrect (whether it comes from Black folks, white folks or other folks) and calls on sober minded persons of all races to join us in this 50 year reflection, analysis and dialogue.”
According to the Black Paper, the 20th Century ushered in the migration of the Black community to the urban centers of America that accompanied a sharp distinction in classes among Blacks.
“The end of WWII also ushered in a more militant consciousness evidenced by returning veterans, which helped to incubate a nascent social movement to fight white racism and elitism,” stated the report.
The collection notes that even as some progressive presidential administrations made deposits in social and economic programs that promoted racial and financial equality, those programs were often countered by opposing administrations that passed painful cuts and cost-saving measures that neutered those same programs and “weakened the Black middle class and further marginalized the Black poor, vulnerable, and working classes.”
The paper maintains that “sufficient resources were never put into the social account to sustain both the Black middle class and the Black poor and vulnerable” forcing lawmakers and even members of the Black community to choose between bolstering the middle class and providing for the poor.
“The results are normal and not an accident or an aberration,” said Mtangulizi Sanyika, former professor of African World Studies at Dillard University in New Orleans and a former senior fellow at Mickey Leland Center on World Hunger and Peace. “It’s how the system is supposed to work.”
Sanyika said that the simple imagery of America’s bounced check captures the major contradiction of the American political economy and how we got where we are today.
“Yes, a deposit was made, but the check still bounced. There’s too much rubber in the account so the check will keep bouncing as long as the status quo is maintained,” said Sanyika.
Sanyika argues that the American political economy operates on flawed logic, blaming the poor and marginalized for today’s social problems, while ignoring the past that contributed to them.
“Never mind the fact that you were robbed in the first place, never mind the fact that your labor was stolen, never mind the fact that you were left landless never mind the fact that your family was disrupted,” said Sanyika. “The consensus is that the American political economy, the free market system, and American democracy are exceptions to the norms of history. That is the American consensus and that is one of our big problems.”
Michael Fauntroy, associate professor of political science at Howard University, argued that addressing those big problems will take big voter turnouts at the ballot booth.
“In 1965 approximately 70 African-Americans held elected office in the eleven southern states; that number grew to 248 by 1968, 1,397 by 1974 and 2, 535 by 1981. Now more than 10,500 African-Americans serve as elected officials at every level of local and state government around the nation,” he wrote.
Fauntroy said that, numerically, there is no question that that is progress, but African Americans are still underrepresented relative to the number of African Americans across the country.
“That progress has not resulted in the kind of change and profound structural reform needed in the policy improvements that we all seek,” said Fauntroy. “Politics is about exercising power to change policy to impact people. Settling on accepting symbols is not enough.”
According to Fauntroy, sometimes exercising that power takes getting tough with our friends and punishing our enemies.
“While there are other worthy areas to be focused on, the answers to our solutions, beginning in the next election, will depend largely on who wins those elections and who wins those elections is determined in large part by who turns out to vote,” he said.
Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst for civil and criminal justice and reform with the Open Society Foundations, an organization that works for public policy reform, said that it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about vigilantism, police brutality, prosecutorial abuse or court processes, as a race Blacks have been subjected to a double standard of justice.
“Fifty years ago the police and the Klan worked hand in hand it was overt it was direct, it was in your face,” said Taifa. “Today, 50 years later, the United States has moved from overt racist lynchings and explicitly blatant discrimination to institutionalized racism and institutionalized mass incarceration as its punishment of choice.”
Taifa cited a range of actions – including racial profiling, abuse of prosecutorial discretion, the lack of diversity in jury pools, the removal of Blacks from jury pools – that skew the criminal justice system in favor of Whites.
She lauded Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent speech on criminal justice reform and said that the proposals he laid out were a step in the right direction. Ultimately, it will be up to community stakeholders, activists, and scholars like those who penned the Black Paper to explain the importance of those reforms and connect the dots for those affected members of the Black community in everyday language, she added.
“It is time that we as scholars, advocates and the media raise the ante and have the audacity to advance creative solutions to break the criminal punishment continuum once and for all and fashion new systems based on prevention rather than punishment and compassion rather than criminalization,” said Taifa. “The mass incarceration, the mass criminalization and the institutionalized genocide of Black people must end. What we need is justice, not ‘just us.’”
(Photo: Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century talks about the IBW Black Paper project in Washington, D.C. Courtesy Freddie Allen/NNPA).