May 29, 2015
“Give the People What They Want” is one of many classic songs written and produced by the legendary musical icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This, like many of those great hits was termed a “message” song. Not only were they groovy and commercially successful, they were embedded with powerful and self-empowering messages for the Black community.
This article attempts to answer the question: What do the people want? Should one group (whites) have what it needs to thrive in America, while another group (Blacks) doesn’t even have what it needs to survive enough? For Black people what is wanted is also what is needed – they are one.
In the song it states that the people want the basics – better food to eat; education; housing; money. The people want the truth. The people want freedom, justice, and equality. In parts one and two of this article, my focus was on unpacking the concepts of “freedom” and “justice” and in this article I will conclude by unpacking the concept of “equality”.
Who are the people being referred to in the song? Who are the people wanting freedom, justice and equality?
It’s obvious that the people are not those that have the power to chart their own self-determination. The people being referenced are those that are at the bottom of the economic ladder and struggle for things that the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights supposedly affords to all Americans.
Black people fit this description. The fact of the matter is, since the inception of the American experience, Black and brown people have been expendable and their lives haven’t mattered at all.
Blacks have achieved physical freedom from nearly 350 years of chattel slavery, but didn’t receive economic restitution for this crime against, not only Black people, but against all of humanity.
This crime allowed America to amass tremendous wealth and power making it the superpower that it is today. Real freedom in a capitalistic society is economic freedom.
Some Black people have made tremendous progress in America since emancipation. This progress should be viewed as an awesome accomplishment when you consider the lopsided beginning Blacks inherited from slavery and the number of outright racist plots designed to derail their full integration into American society.
In addition to being in 100 percent abject poverty, with a nearly 100 percent illiteracy rate for millions of freed Blacks immediately following emancipation, Blacks suffered tremendous psychological and emotional damage from a brutal and sustained oppression; many of these scars are evidenced today. However, the fact remains, that nearly two-thirds of all Black people live at or near poverty and a good portion of the other third trail significantly behind their middle- to high-income white counterparts in every category, specifically wealth.
As a group, Blacks continue to lag behind every other ethnic group in America.
With nearly 90 percent of America’s wealth inherited, it is very unlikely that you can become wealthy without being born into wealth. Not to get it twisted – you might be able to become rich, but that doesn’t equate to wealth and being rich as an individual won’t create wealth as a group.
So what if there are 1,000 Black millionaires. This number pales in comparison to hundreds of thousands of white millionaires and thousands of white billionaires.
Ask yourself: Who owns mass media and communication (i.e. satellite, television, cable, internet, radio, movies, etc.), worldwide transportation (rail, land, marine, air, etc.), industrial agricultural, manufacturing, downtown real estate, banking and financing institutions, energy, philanthropic foundations, colleges and universities with endowments (this pretty much excludes historically Black colleges and universities); health industry, technology, pharmaceutical, biotech and science research, law firms, architectural firms, real estate development, construction, public relations, political and lobbyist firms, advertisers, etc. Shall I go on?
I hope you get the picture. Blacks are literally absent in these areas and this is not because Blacks are inferior but because Blacks lack real wealth.
Not having active participation in these areas turns Black people into economic slaves.
Therefore, Blacks are not free until they achieve economic freedom.
Above, I referenced the many booby-traps (e.g. Jim Crow Laws, KKK terrorism, corrupt and police state neighborhoods, failed public education systems, school to prison phenomena, last hired and first fired, massive disparities in every quality of life indicator, and outright racism and discrimination) that have prevented Blacks from achieving economically. These traps have significantly impeded the self-determination of Black people and represent the injustice that exists in every American institution. Even today, every American institution unfairly discriminates against Black people. Most of these actions were taken against Black people as a group, not as individuals. These traps were intended to deny Black people access to the full benefits of being American. Take any American institution and you will find there was a time in our recent past (40 – 50 years) that these institutions openly discriminated against Blacks (e.g. sports, higher education, medicine, professional, public, business, law, etc.). Although these racist policies have diminished, many of these institutions are operating on autopilot because the outcomes are similar (even today, Blacks are underrepresented in all American institutions). Black people will never get in front of their own destiny unless justice is achieved in all of America’s institutions.
Today, it’s very hard to prove that an institution is racist, mainly because most of us don’t know our history. It appears that we have gotten amnesia. We’re being told that today we live in a post-racial society; there is no such thing as racism and race doesn’t matter. America elected a Black president and if you count Bill Clinton, Blacks have had two Black presidents. What a bunch of B.S. In fact, the denial of the role that race plays in every aspect of America’s life is in itself “racist.” I will contend that America is growing but we’re far from being where we need to be.
Public acts of racism are condemned very harshly by white mainstream media. Take the recent scandal with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma where the members openly chanted the use of the “n” word. Or when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded telling his girlfriend not to bring Black people to his games, because he was jealous that she was with Black men. In both instances, there was immediate outrage from the highest level of our society. The condemnations were followed with sanctions and consequences that were consistent with the wrongdoing. Many have begun to believe the big lie that racism is ending (I guess if you say it long enough, it becomes the truth), and many feel their job has been done. This is merely theatrics. The real institutional racism goes unchecked and there are no efforts to address the invisible and very lethal structural and institutional racism. In fact, the lie that racism doesn’t exist has been sold so well, even when Black people bring up race, they are accused of dropping the “race” card.
Racism takes the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems and institutions that carry out a belief in white superiority and Black inferiority. Racism can be best understood as “prejudice plus power” because without the support of political or economic power, prejudice would not have any impact. Prejudice and power are not synonymous, but are two different terms between which a number of differences exist; however, many people confuse these two words. In the world today, there exists a lot of prejudice and hatred amongst people. Prejudice can be understood as a preconceived opinion of another individual that holds no logic or reasoning. Racism, on the other hand, refers to the actual discrimination against a person or group based on and motivated by “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races…prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race…” This highlights that prejudice and racism cannot be considered the same, even though there is a link between the two. Therefore, Black people can’t be racist because they lack the power to implement their prejudices. All of America’s institutions are owned and controlled by white people, many of whom have been proven to hold prejudiced views in our recent past, and now we are to believe that racism no longer exists.
It is clear that discrimination against Black people is in full force – just look at the numbers and the outcomes (the visuals are enough). Not much has changed since the time when Black people were denied total access into all aspects of American life (Jim Crow and segregation). Today there are many who tout (promoted by the media) slavery as a thing of the past and that the “playing field” is now even. But, economic freedom for Black people was never achieved; therefore, justice could never be achieved. Every measurement for economic participation in any of America’s institutions is based on standards designed to create fairness. This would be acceptable if Blacks were not made to be economically, educationally and politically behind their white competitor. In many respects, these standards become structural barriers of entry for Black people.
In spite of the high threshold and standards that have been set, we have some Blacks who are able to participate but they are the exception, not the rule. On a personal level, when seeking a million dollar commercial loan, the requirement was that my net wealth be twice the amount of the loan (two million). I know a lot of Black people and of all the Black people that I know, I only know maybe two to three people who could qualify for this loan. These standards become structural discrimination when the systems know full well that Black people will not be able to compete especially if that standard is tied to having and/or amassing resources (e.g. experience, tuition, equity, etc.). Either Black people are denied participation with an economic benefit (e.g. business, education, employment, etc.) or Black people are oversubscribed within society’s liabilities (e.g. welfare, foster care, healthcare, prison, etc.). Structural discrimination and the injustices against Black people can never be addressed if we don’t challenge visual and obvious bias inequality.
As the song stated, what Black people want is freedom, justice and equality. Above, I’ve tried to state how the freedom needed is economic freedom and the justice needed is institutional justice, and now I turn my focus on EQUALITY.
What is equality? Equality is a state of being equal in quantity, degree, value, rank, ability, and opportunity. I will primarily focus on quantity. This has been and continues to be the struggle for Black people in America. Black people, because of their start in this country, collectively lack the equality of quantity. Basically, if Blacks represent 13 percent of the nation’s population, if equality was really based on equal quantity, Blacks would own 13 percent of the nation’s wealth and positive demographics along with 13 percent of the nation’s problems. For example, 13 percent of the nation’s $110 trillion in wealth would be distributed amongst Black people, whereas they currently hold only one-half of one percent. This disparity is nearly a $14 trillion differential and is lethal while impacting every aspect of Black American life.
The wealth disparity for Black people will remain and/or worsen when you consider some of the key components that are direct contributors to wealth creation, specifically the following:
- Business Participation: A key economic indicator to determine the promise of a group is the number of businesses they startup and Blacks are dead last starting only eight businesses per 1,000 people compared to whites who are starting 90 businesses per 1,000. Access to capital and wealth are the biggest impediments to business startups and sustaining businesses (these represent structural discrimination). There are a number of other factors that contribute to this statistic but the fact remains, more start-ups create more choices, more competition, more capacity, more opportunity, and ultimately more JOBS (this is capitalism at its best). The equality of quantity would have a much more robust and active Black business community represented by thriving neighborhood commercial corridors. If Blacks don’t significantly achieve equality in access to capital and challenge the other injustices associated with structural discrimination, it will be very difficult to challenge the wealth disparities.
- Unemployment/Underemployment: Nearly two-thirds of the Black community lives at or near poverty levels. Even when the nation is experiencing economic growth, many Black people and their neighborhoods are unable to experience this growth. The economic “rising tide” doesn’t lift all boats as promoted by mainstream media and politicians. Take, for example, the national unemployment rate at just under 5 percent and for the state of Wisconsin it is the same. For Blacks the unemployment rate is nearly double at 11 percent. Even this number is lower than the actual unemployment rate, especially when you segment out Black men ages 18 – 35, which raises that unemployment rate up to nearly 50 percent.
In view of the high level of poverty experienced by so many Black families, it is clear that many who are working are underemployed and don’t earn enough (working poor). Too many Black people have full-time employment that is deficient in some important way for the worker (e.g. wages, health benefits, etc.) or they hold one, two or even three part-time or unreported jobs, despite desiring full-time work in light of their qualifications of education, experience, or skills beyond the requirements of the job. Because of the demise of unions and free reign given to employers, many employers, to avoid paying benefits, only offer part-time employment opportunities. This will ensure that the traditional pathway to increasing wealth is threatened significantly. Blacks must ensure equality with regards to unemployment and underemployment.
- Long-term Education Failure: Further complicating economic life for Black people is the state of public education. In cities where Blacks are the majority (there are 50 cities with majority minority Black populations, which represents nearly 75 percent of the total national Black population), public education has been a long-term failure. Regardless of the reasons, the outcomes have been lethal to Black children compromising not only high school graduation levels but the academic skill levels of those who graduate. The quality of the K-12 education is so inferior, most Black high school graduates aren’t on par with their white counterparts when qualifying for and entering college (nearly 90 percent of all Blacks who enter college have to take remedial math and English).
There are severe disparities between Black and white students regarding college enrollment and even worse disparities for college graduation rates (Blacks drop out of college because of their inability to handle the academic load, cultural challenges, and/or financial reasons). These back-ended outcomes are not only devastating and troubling but will continue because the pump is primed beginning at kindergarten. At every measure within the continuum starting with kindergarten through 12th grade, the academic gaps are real. There are many contributing factors to the academic gap but none greater than the funding gap, which is nearly one-third ($8,000 – $9,000 per child) compared to their white counterparts ($25,000 – $30,000 per child). Blacks must achieve funding equality before they can begin to address the multitude of other related issues.
- Family Demise: Economic and business, unemployment and underemployment, and long-term education failure all have contributed to the demise of the Black family. Nationally, divorce rates are nearly 50 percent and Blacks are fairly equitable in this regard. What’s really troubling is the disparity between whites and Blacks for those who will never marry (double for Blacks). Coupled with a high divorce rate, these single-family households can cripple a family. Functional family life is the number one factor for the creation of stable and participating citizens, and the creation of wealth. Families create the expectations for their children and if wealth is the expectation, the pathway of wealth is pursued. If poverty is the expectation, either overtly or unintentionally, the pathway for poverty is more comfortable and ultimately pursued.
In addition to structural and almost permanent inequality based on the concept of equality quantity, what’s more troubling is the inequality of equal access. Black equality is about securing equal rights in every area of American life (e.g. housing, jobs, education, medical, finance, criminal justice system, etc.). Equality for Black people hasn't been achieved in 300 to 500 years when you count Africa – from slavery to sharecropping for no pay; separate and unequal education; Jim Crow and voter suppression and back-of-the-bus laws; nearly a million and half black men in jail – the Black man and woman in America have and continue to struggle for equality.
After years of inequality and discrimination isn't it about time that Black people achieve freedom, justice and equality? Black people definitely deserve it. One of the tools that must be restored in the fight for freedom, justice and equality for Black people in America is affirmative action or positive discrimination to address a culture and climate of structural discrimination. Not only must we address outright and visual biases, we must demand and fight for a quota system, whereby a certain percentage of jobs or school vacancies must be reserved for Blacks and not minorities.
It’s clear that Blacks don’t have freedom (economic freedom), justice (structural racism) or equality (equal quantity or opportunity). The struggle continues.
Rahim Islam is a National Speaker and Writer, Convener of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on Facebook (Rahim Islam) & Twitter (@RahimIslamUC).