Message to the Community, Specifically the Leaders
While this message is for everyone, it is tailored specifically to the Black leaders. I define Black leaders as more than just elected officials. Black leaders includes those individuals who hold a position that serves the needs of the Black community (i.e. elected, appointed, business, non-profit, civic, public sector, religious, etc.). Why? Because, within the Black community, the leadership has the capacity, the resources, the expertise, and the ability to develop and orchestrate a plan of action to save our community. The questions for us are, “Who are these people?” and, “Why is our community not moving in the right direction?” I contend that the Black community is a “body” without a “head.” Who represents the Black community – some may respond that the Black community is not a monolithic group and hundreds of people represent the community. However, having hundreds of leaders without centralized and strategic representation is no leadership at all.
Everyone is a leader of some sort, but some people and their actions have a greater impact on others. In many respects, because of their position (i.e. job, title, organization mission, etc.), they have the responsibility to provide leadership to the community. This relationship and expectation is not formalized, i.e., the community is expecting that this group will do the right thing for and by them. Unfortunately, this group of leaders and many of the sectors that they represent are unorganized, combined with individualism and organizational tribalism. Therefore, nothing is moving in any “real” way for the Black community.
Even though our Black leaders possess a myriad of resources to ameliorate significant sectors within the Black community, what remains lacking is vision, will, and heart. Certainly, some Black leaders have the Black community at heart and are motivated by seeing the Black community get up off its feet. However, too many Black leaders are clueless about their history, the shoulders that they stand on, and the legacy that they represent. Were it not for our ancestors, many individuals in Black leadership wouldn’t even be in the position that they are in. Certainly, their position of leadership was fought for and won by our ancestors, and it was hoped that the current leaders would continue the struggle.
Too many Black leaders have inherited the “majority” approach and model in the implementation of their leadership. Their predecessors were White and therefore, these Black leaders now implement an approach that is similar to their “White” predecessors. This can be seen in so many instances, especially in government and politics. Today, in Philadelphia, 15 out of 20 key positions, including the Mayor and the City Council President are African American, yet the majority of Blacks in Philadelphia are living at or near poverty; the school to prison pipeline is primed; the education system remains a failure; nearly every Black neighborhood is in decline; and every major social-economic indicator shows the Black community in near serious demise. A new concept has been developed in the community as a result of this phenomenon called “Black Fatigue” – many Black people don’t understand why their plight hasn’t improved when Blacks are controlling the city.
“Natural tensions” exist between one aspect of government and others designed to create a “balance” in governing: government and quasi-government agencies; government and private sector with the courts having the final say on all disputes. Notably, these tensions become apparent between City Council and the Mayor’s office; city government and state government; independent boards and commissions and city governments; etc. Depending on who is leading these different entities, the natural tensions can be lessened and progress is made, or they can become exacerbated and nothing much gets done. This is played out on a national level where tensions between the Executive branch of government (President) and the Legislative branch (Congress) results in a stalemate and nothing gets accomplished (Congress approval rating is near 10 percent).
The ability to produce within, despite this tension illuminates the dilemma that having an African-American in position of leadership isn’t enough if they do not understand their purpose and if they do not believe that they are part of the Black struggle. When African-Americans are not willing or able to break the cycle of “majority” politics, having them in those spheres of influence is meaningless. Black leadership rendered impotent defies the hope of our ancestors that these individuals would continue to unite and defend the Black community. If Black leaders didn’t act like those individuals who held these positions prior to them (for most part they were White) and did not understand their responsibility to their people in the execution of their duties, they will allow “majority” politics to rule. In this case, they’ve done nothing more than assimilate. These individuals are now the caretakers and shepherds of these institutions that have oppressed Black people and they defend their practices more diligently than their White predecessors. This is the embodiment and expression of mental and psychological slavery. How is it that Blacks control nearly every key government position in Philadelphia, and yet we continue the tradition that serves White people and their special interest groups at the expense of the Black community who voted them in position?
A community, like the Black community, in such dire straits demands that governmental agencies function at the highest level to deliver to those who are least represented and underserved. Government by its nature operates in a silo and it takes good leaders to get government to work. Even when these agencies are not productive, someone benefits. And we know based on empirical evidence that the Black community does not benefit. Summarily, the white community can afford to have the aforementioned structural divisions because their communities are not in disarray as the Black community is, so this works out for them. I’ve heard many people say, when things are going well, “We will wait them out” meaning that we will keep the obstruction in place until we can get to the next cycle to replace the leadership. This could sometimes mean three to four years of delays or inaction that does not advance the Black community.
While I describe the dysfunction amongst our Black leaders in government, in all other sectors the plight is similar – absolute disunity of leadership. Throughout our brief “free” history, we’ve had some great “individual” leaders and most, if not all, were giving us good guidance, especially when it came to seeing what Whites were doing to us. Not much instruction was aimed at what we, as Black people, we’re not doing which was to unite under the “Black” flag. With the exception of Marcus Garvey, we have never had an authentic Black movement. Some may espouse that the Nation of Islam was a Black Nationalist movement but the reality of the matter is that it was also a religious movement and that was a big difference.
We now have history as a reference point of what has worked and what has not worked. We have the opportunity to assess the pros and cons of all of our great thinkers and leaders even though we never truly worked together. What is our excuse today? Why is it that we know that disunity is at the heart of our failures, yet we are unable to mount any campaign to unite?
What the Black community needs more now than anything is unity. Not the unity that is some superficial description of Black people all doing the same thing at the same time – that’s unrealistic. The unity that I’m referencing is a “functional” unity. Black people need functional unity to defend ourselves against the mindset and erroneous public opinion that Blacks are where we are because of our inferiority and many point to the “token” leadership that we currently hold. The misguided mindset and erroneous public opinion exist that Blacks have had an equal chance to succeed in America and refuse to take advantage of that chance. Interestingly, the proponents of this viewpoint dismiss our history in America and postulate that our history of oppression and discrimination has no bearing on our current dilemma today. This perspective is delusional or hypocritical as America is a capitalistic society, in which Blacks by design were and continue to be denied capital – this simple factor is crippling to everything aspect of Black life in America.
Since Black people have been in America (nearly 450 years), America’s treatment of Black people has been consistently deplorable. Today, Black people exhibit more disparities than any group in America. Blacks continue to lose ground in nearly every category with “positive” demographics and dominate nearly every category with a “negative” demographic. While there are so many disparities, none is more impactful than the massive wealth “gap” that exists between White and Black people, which is a “direct” result of the enslavement, and legal racial discrimination against Black people. America’s economy, considered one of the largest in the world, represents nearly $150 trillion annually and Blacks have little or no real ownership. Black ownership of the nation’s wealth remains where it was in 1860 near the end of slavery (pre-emancipation) at one half of one percent.
Where you start matters, especially when it comes to wealth, and while America was oppressing Black people through enslavement and legal discrimination, America was becoming today’s $150 trillion economy which is completely owned by White America. Still, we are led to believe that all things are equal and that Blacks, just by being free, should be able to compete economically. There is a direct link to the overwhelming economic benefit enjoyed today by White people, businesses, and institutions. This competitive advantage is lethal and plays out in every sector of American life. This is also why very few Black “for-profit’ companies are adequately capitalized and hardly any of our “non-profit” institutions are endowed. The Black community lacks resources that the White community takes for granted. The Black community lacks capital because the Black community lacks wealth. America must acknowledge and remedy the economic advantage that Whites have over Blacks.
Simply put, because of the nearly 450 years head start with the enslavement of tens of millions of Black people with no compensation, the American Institution of Slavery produced unbelievable economic gains and wealth for White America with a significant portion of that wealth in play today. To deny this advantage is absurd and outright ludicrous with both being pathological. The enslavement of our ancestors was a brutal and vicious institution that hurt us, I believe, permanently and it continues to haunt us today in every way. Slavery was a very profitable American institution. While the institution of slavery doesn’t exist today, its infrastructure (ideas, beliefs, values, and policies) has morphed into other American institutions.
Brothers and Sisters, we must remember that it’s all about “competition” and while we are severely disadvantaged, no one really cares about our plight. America is about winners and losers. You are able to win because you understand freedom and the responsibility that comes with being free and you lose because you’re haven’t truly grasped the meaning of freedom. Today we hear from many “right-wing” conservatives (keepers of the American way) telling the Black community to stop playing the “race card” and to stop bringing up the past (the past doesn’t matter). They say, “The past is the past and I didn’t enslave anyone.” They also say, “My people endure hardships too,” so if Black people can’t compete under the concept of “free competition,” something is wrong with Black people and nothing is wrong with the system – America is about free enterprise. With little to no knowledge about our history, our children grow up believing in this myth and actualize the core of hopelessness.
We have allowed our history and our start in this country to be marginalized and, in many aspects, to be removed from the public discourse. This permission to dismiss our history of oppression and discrimination makes us unable to challenge racism and discrimination. They have become structural and institutional because we have accepted “real” bias; bias in the government; bias in corporate America; bias in quasi-government boards and commissions; bias in education at all levels; bias in science and medicine, etc. Because of the failure on the part of Black leaders to defend Black people and what has and continues to happen, racism is invisible yet more lethal than when Whites who wore hoods and vowed never to allow Blacks to be full citizens.
While we don’t have Jim Crow laws, what we do have is James Crow, Esq., his children, who still own and control nearly all of American life and now have no legitimate concern or reason to share with Blacks especially when Blacks refuse to hold them accountable – why should they? Blacks are unable to hold Whites accountable because they’re unable to hold themselves accountable. If American isn’t getting a heavy dose of accountability from Black people, the antiquated notion that Blacks are inherently lazy and deserve the outcomes that we have will be cemented and relegate the future Black generations to a permeant underclass in America. Black people must take responsibility. While we had marginal success, that success would look much different today if we had more Black leaders fighting on behalf of Black people instead of replacing White oppressors with African American oppressors who believe the same ideology that Blacks are inferior and Whites are superior.
While we all know that racism exists, when was the last piece of anti-racism legislation adopted in America? Just the opposite has occurred, both racism and discrimination is buried in institutional thinking and climate, and its manifestation can be seen in the racial makeup of the ownership and governance (structural bias). This structural bias is becoming more entrenched and can’t be corrected until more Black leaders see that we are all in this together and our individual success will always be threatened by our inability to achieve group success (functional unity). Nothing should divide Black people, not the aspect of leadership we represent nor the viewpoint from which we come (i.e. religious, political, class, education, etc.). The current reality is unacceptable and unjustifiable. We’re in a crisis and at a crossroads that requires our immediate and unapologetic response.
I regret to conclude that given the downward spiral of every demographic, our Black leaders seem unwilling or unable to mount a collective defense or offense. When nothing is being done, we not only fail our ancestors, we also support the misrepresentation of Black inferiority (where else should we look for hope). While I fundamentally believe we should never exonerate America for the damage it has done to our people, we are responsible for our own destiny and self-determination. No one is going to save Black people but Black people.
Today, our leaders suffer from an acute level of hopelessness and “group” paralysis. We have Black leaders that are afraid to make “hard” or “smart” decisions that could positively impact the Black community. This paralysis emanates from systemic psychological slavery where these leaders refuse to threaten or anger their base or special interest groups. Sadly, these leaders adopt “easy” and somewhat uninformed decisions that either prolongs the problem or that don’t empower the Black community. At the same time, we have our most economically mobile not championing Black independence, and in many cases these individuals support and advance disparaging ideas and racist stereotypes about Black people (i.e. violent, lazy, criminal, looking for handouts, etc.).
Despite the complexity and despair of these issues that contribute to our sense of despondence, hope resides in our ability to unite our leadership -“functional’ unity. It is this “functional unity” that is necessary to change the trajectory of our people. Much of our hopelessness and disunity is inherited and we must do all we can to break the cycle. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King stated that our power lies in our unity, and our leaders must lead by example. Those that consider themselves leaders must come together and create a “table” where we can begin to discuss these issues. Regardless of the position or view that we have, if Black, we have an obligation to fulfill our purpose as a representative of an oppressed group while we hold office in Pharaoh’s government. We have no excuses. Our inability to unite places the Black community in a very vulnerable position in what I describe as a “perfect” storm.
The “perfect” storm is when a number of horrendous things begin to happen and/or culminate over the next 15 to 25 years. In addition to the rolling back of all gains achieved by Black people in the sixties, the deficit of effort to restore and establish new gains; and the lack of America’s accountability to many of the social-economic conditions that Black people face today – the general opinion is that White privilege does not exist and America has a contrived race issue. Many ill-informed pundits argue that we now live in a post-racial society (racism has been defeated); while massive wealth disparities exist between Blacks and Whites as Whites maintain a near absolute control over the American economy and its institutions. Additionally, the Black school to prison pipeline which represents the world’s most egregious human rights violation of our time has literally decimated the Black family and community and has significantly crippled our ability to mount any real defense. When we examine the continuum of every statistical social-economic area, we will find that the negative numbers that impact the Black community today will only worsen over the next 15 to 25 years. The pump is primed. We won’t nor can we improve ourselves without serious interruption. Finally, the Black community will lose a population of elders that represent the final group of Black pioneers that were actually young adults or adults during the last campaign of “open” racism in America – this group has a personal experience of the “sting” of American racism. They have lived it.
This group of Black elders is represented by anyone who was born before 1935, which means that they were young adults prior to integration. Why is this important? This group represents the last known group of Black victims of overt racism and discrimination. Our entire present day generation stands on the legacy of their struggles as they carry the institutional knowledge and memories that are the foundation for all aspects of the existing fight for freedom, justice, and equality for Black people in America. One of the major reasons why White America has disclaimed reparations for their role in American slavery and many articulate that no reparations are due is because they say no “slaves” are living today. However, we do have the children and grandchildren of those who were enslaved and who lived under the reign of terror of Jim Crow, i.e. American Apartheid, post-emancipation.
This group also, in many ways were “duped” and “hoodwinked” into believing that under certain circumstances (i.e. integration), America would treat Blacks as full citizens. The current facts repute this assertion. In addition, this group truly understands the adversaries of Black people and understands how these opponents created a culture and climate to undermine and destroy Black unity, while supporting Black individualism, and contributing to Black tribalism. We must break this cycle of disunity to unite and defend our people. In part two of this article, I will elaborate more on what we need to do in order to effectively break the cycle of Black disunity.
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)