May 15, 2015
In my previous article, I tried to recapture the spirit of one of many of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's “message” songs. The song I chose was “Give the People What They Want” which was performed by the O’Jays. The song ultimately went number one on the R&B Charts in 1975. A theme in the song stated that “You got to give the people what they want and the people want freedom, justice and equality.”
Black people, like all other people, want and deserve freedom, justice, and equality. Following sometimes-bad leadership, our community has never chased or demanded “economic equity.” Blacks have chased and demanded social equity not knowing that social equity can’t be achieved in America without economic equity. At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it, it is the economic benefits that America refuses to share with Blacks because, to do so, white America would have to acknowledge the significant role that Black people played in helping America become the rich superpower it is today. America’s wealth and power is directly tied to the American institution of slavery, which enslaved millions of Blacks for nearly 350 years, and now its lethal “legacy” continues to wreak havoc on the Black community today. America owes a real economic debt to the Black community.
In part one of this article I tried to make the point that one of the reasons freedom, justice and equality has been so elusive for Blacks is because America and its multitude of institutions was built on the backs of enslaved Blacks. Simply stated, America was built on the hate and the brutality against Black people. America was built on the economics of slavery that has afforded generations of whites a significant competitive and economic advantage over the “so-called” freed Blacks – real freedom is economic freedom. Whites amassed an economic fortune (wealth) and knowledge (institutional know how) and left this inheritance, economic benefit, and a climate and culture of power and real privilege to their children; while Blacks were coming out of physical slavery in absolute and total poverty, emotionally and physiologically battered and bruised, and completely ignorant as to the “ownership” of America and its capitalistic ways. Blacks were told to compete and millions of its children inherited generational poverty.
In spite of this unforgivable economic position that Blacks faced after emancipation, Blacks would make real progress in nearly every area (e.g. literacy attainment, education, land ownership, small business development, functional community life, etc.), but this progress was met with a vicious and terroristic adaptation of slavery and oppression in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. Blacks responded with a civil rights fight that would consume them for nearly 60 years, which ultimately placed Blacks further behind economically. While the terror enacted on Blacks post-slavery rivaled that of the terror enacted against Blacks during slavery, one of the most potent ramifications of that period was the devaluation and suppression of their political freedom. Not having both economic and political freedom was extremely damaging to the “infant” Black community.
While Blacks might have won the civil rights battle, they continue to lose the economic war (this needle hasn’t moved since emancipation). Since the 1960’s, as a result of hundred years of chattel slavery and structural and institutional racism, Blacks have continued to lose ground in nearly every category with positive demographics decreasing and nearly every negative demographic increasing and now ballooning out of control. Because we live in a capitalistic society, resources, money and wealth all matter in determining how far you go as both an individual and as a group, and the Black community has very little. Since emancipation, the Black community hasn’t been a formidable foe in the economic race, given how we started and the fight for civil rights, while needed, distracted Blacks from doing what it must do to challenge the economics of America. Sure we had every right to focus our attention on addressing civil rights because having two laws (one for whites and one for Blacks) is absolutely not fair especially when the law is supposed to be colorblind. Unfortunately, when many of the civil rights gains were achieved, we went to sleep and took our eyes off the prize and now many of us chase social equity not realizing that social equity will never be achieved without economic equity (i.e. a dog that chases his tail).
Blacks continue in the economic struggle because there is no slavery like economic slavery and there is no freedom like economic freedom.
Now that we know that the real freedom that we need is economic freedom, how should we view justice? Let’s unpack justice and if applied correctly, what it would mean for the Black community today.
Justice, in its broadest context is the attainment of that which is just underlying several perspectives (e.g. moral, law, equity, and fairness). What is fair and what is equitable? After emancipation, every American system was legally, morally, and physically blocked to Blacks in America. For the most part, from 1865 Blacks lived in segregated and contained areas where they experienced extreme levels of racism. Blacks were denied equal access to the multitude of American systems offered to whites. Today, Blacks suffer from institutional racism and structural racism.
Although there were no physical walls built to contain Black people, the extreme racial pressures of forced segregation were enough to further economically weaken an already economically weak group. I wrote several articles on urban renewal and urban removal and one of the key points that I tried to make is that the foundation for this phenomenon is the lack of real estate ownership. Going back nearly 100 years, Blacks didn’t own many of the homes that they resided in and there were a number of orchestrated efforts to restrict wealth creation via real estate. There was the overwhelming number of loan rejections (Blacks were not able to get mortgages). There was the overwhelming number of canceled insurance policies (Blacks were not able to get homeowner’s insurance – a requisite for a mortgage). If justice were real for Black people – this wouldn’t be happening. Is this fair? Is this moral? Is this justice?
Having a job that pays a living wage and includes benefits has been the cornerstone for wealth creation in America. If that cornerstone is compromised, reduced, and/or removed, it fundamentally economically cripples the stabilization of the family, which is needed to promote and support the growth of its children. If you ask most successful entrepreneurs who and what they attribute their success to, most will say their parents. This usually means a family structure that is supported by economic stability (a job). Like previous times, Black men between 18 and 35 (husband age) are experiencing unemployment at astronomical levels (30-50 percent). In Philadelphia, I remember the fight for getting Blacks in government jobs (e.g. police, fire fighters, teachers, etc.).
This is not some foreign concept especially when you consider that Blacks contribute to the resources (pay taxes) but weren’t represented. Why should these be fights in a “free” society? Why is it that Blacks are still the “last hired and the first fired”? Blacks, for the most part, occupied the remedial and entry-level jobs and most, if not all of the management jobs were orchestrated to have only whites. The professional positions were absolutely skewed to if not eliminate Black’s having the opportunity or at least minimize their role and participation. One of the greatest architects, Julian Able, had to have his works registered under a white architect; we have countless stories of writers and composers, inventors, etc. Even American sports weren’t integrated until the 1950’s and 1960’s – prior to that, owners refused to hire Blacks. This was across every business sector and even today, you find it very hard to see meaningful Black representation in the CEO suite of big business. We all recognize the racist system that was in place pre-1960 that accounted for most of these atrocious outcomes but let’s look today. If you take the top 5,000 corporations with each having 10 key managers and decision makers you will have 50,000 positions – Blacks make up approximately 0.5 percent (est. 250). What system is in place today that is producing these types of numbers? I say an injustice is prevalent that is guided and molded by what has built America – racism. The fact of the matter is that justice in every system has been elusive and remains so today. Is this fair? Is this moral? Is this justice?
Many say that Blacks should create businesses and hire their own people. During segregation, when Blacks did respond to the economic boycotts that were being waged against them by white American institutions, they opened and operated their own businesses. During segregation, Blacks had movie theaters, banks, insurance companies, food markets, radio stations and newspapers, and many other businesses that supplied the needs of the community. In fact, a few weeks ago I came across a businessman who operated his own Black airline in the 1940’s and 1950’s with 100 flights weekly. However, all these businesses need capital. This is a process, and where you start matters. That wasn’t enough that Black entrepreneurs were under-capitalized (Blacks had/have no meaningful wealth – a requirement for capital), they also suffered from the injustices of having two sets of criteria for participating in business – for Black people, the threshold for underwriting was nearly impossible to meet. Even today, the bank underwriting criteria is different for Blacks and whites (its outward appearance is fair but its internal operations are lethal). These injustices were carried out for no other reason but that the owners, caretakers and managers of these institutions were following the wishes of racists. Is this fair? Is this moral? Is this justice?
Also during this segregation, education was hijacked and underfunded causing a long and constant fight for justice in the education system. In fact, I hear people say that the new civil rights are education, which I disagree – civil rights will always be about economic rights. The fact of the matter is that, every aspect of education has been a fight – the business side of education (e.g. contracted services, teachers, administrators, etc.) to the delivery of education content (e.g. rites of passage, Black history, Black Infusion, Black culture, etc.). In addition, for many municipalities, funding for public education was based on real estate taxes and real estate values. So if the values were low in your area you had less to work with than those who lived in areas where the real estate values were high (we’ve written extensively how racist and discriminatory policies have artificially kept real estate values down). Black schools couldn’t compete with white schools because they fundamentally had fewer resources.
The education opportunity gap can be seen in the “prison”-like high rise buildings that sometimes housed 1,500 – 3,000 students in the inner city for Black children versus sprawling campuses – well groomed campuses with all of the physical amenities (e.g. gyms, recreational fields, performing arts, auditoriums, etc.) that would have 1,000 students. Whites who never relocated to the suburbs lived in the urban cities but in primarily white neighborhoods that were not part of the economic campaign waged against the Black community; therefore, these cities had to offer “public” education to their children by creating “special admit” and magnet schools that students got in because their parents were politically connected and/or their children tested above other children – this inequity can also be seen in what some term as the significant advantage that wealthier children have over children born into poverty starting with birth through early childhood education. In addition, whites that live in these cities also can afford to send their children to private schools that bypass altogether public education. Black children have always been treated unfairly in the education system. Is this fair? Is this moral? Is this justice?
If you examine the judicial system you’ll find glaring inadequacies that plague us today. We’ve had a court and police system that never protected Black people primarily from white racists aimed at harming and/or killing us. Today we’ve adopted terms like “Black lives matters.” Why? For too long Black lives haven’t matter. It didn’t matter to the tens of thousands of Black men that were hung in public. It didn’t matter when entire Black towns were pillaged and destroyed by white racists. It didn’t matter when white police would kill our Black youth and the court systems would defend their actions. Many of these people were judges, police officers in the day and KKK members at night. The judicial system has created an environment and culture that even today: Blacks don’t trust the police. I remember my first arrest – the officer beat me to a pulp – when I got before the judge I was charged with resisting arrest and assault and battery against an officer. That was my first wakeup call that the world wasn’t fair. How many Black men have experienced this? Tens of thousands.
So much police abuse, and the ultimate protection by the courts, has been waged against the Black community by historically white police officers. It’s not hard to understand the “no snitch” code that exists in the Black community when it comes to the police. It’s not that the Black community is dumb or stupid – it’s been years and years of abuse by the hands of white police that is in Black people’s psyche today. Even when clear evidence is shown like in the Rodney King case, these white officers are found to be innocent and they become heroes in the police brotherhood. Today, there have been 10-14 high-profile murders of unarmed Black youth by white police officers and only one has been charged with a crime. The abuse and racism is not only on the criminal side of the judicial system. From the arrest, prosecution, sentencing, imprisonment, execution, and the re-entry, all are loaded with built-in racism that makes achieving justice literally impossible for Black people, especially Black men. I haven’t discussed family court and the injustices that are carried out daily against Black children, mothers, and families. All of these issues and more undermined the economic viability of the Black community. Is this fair? Is this moral? Is this justice?
Many of the above injustices that are being conducted by institutions have Black people in them and even leading them. That doesn’t change anything. Like all institutions, they become self-protecting and are driven by the majority and our historical past. Many of the injustices have the same sting yet we say that things have changed. I contend that the people have changed but the systems, the institutions have not. The legacy of the American institution of slavery is alive and thriving through many other institutions. America was built on slavery and brutality against Black people – that’s why today, freedom justice and equality for Black people is so elusive.
It’s clear that Blacks don’t have freedom (economic freedom) and justice (structural racism) and next week I will address the issue of equality.
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).