There is a disturbing trend in black online media. At a time when we should be using this amazing technology to exchange ideas, resources, and useful information to aid in our liberation and growth, we are scrambling to tell other black people just how awful we are. Apparently the fact that a 400 year old social/political/economic structure designed to keep African-Americans subservient is spending billions of dollars a year to maintain the status quo is all the fault of poor black people. Listening to the black so-called intellectuals on the web, all of our problems could be solved if we all just made better personal choices. Here’s a few reasons why that is all BS.
Remember why we are here.
Before the Mayflower notwithstanding, for the vast majority of Black people living in the United States, our history in this country begins with slavery. The American myth of the English colonies being founded on a Puritan search for religious freedom has been instilled in us from an early age. But we must never forget that those first 7 documented African indentured servants arrived in Virginia, a colony whose sole purpose was the economic enrichment of the mother country through tobacco farming and the exploitation of natural resources. If the Europeans had been successful in enslaving America’s native populations, then our country’s history would have been very different. When we forget that slavery was, first and foremost, a question of economics and racism is simply the by-product of that, then we are overlooking the root causes of our oppression. Like any tenacious weed, oppression must be torn out by the roots or, as our own history can testify, it pops back up time and time again.
Understand the pushback is constant and evolving.
Once we understand that the core of our oppression is economic and not racial, the current state of Black America begins to make more sense. Just as with slavery, the fortunes of millions of Americans depends on African-Americans not achieving financial self-determination on a large scale.
After slavery, white people did not settle into a state of quiet resignation. Generations of white wealth, in both the north and south had depended on the almost 250 years of free labor Black people provided. Though great strides had been made during the Reconstruction Era seeing the rise of Black businesses, schools, and even towns the condition of the vast majority of African-Americans changed in name only. In the South the plantation system morphed into the sharecropping system. This quasi-servitude was given full government sanction through the enactment of state labor laws designed to keep Black people tied to the service of their former owners. Though marginally better in the North, Black people were often kept out of the skilled trades and regulated to the lowest paying jobs while being crowded into segregated, crumbling neighborhoods that slumlords charged high rents for but refused maintain. Through the almost universal practice of redlining, banks would refuse to issue business loans and mortgages to Black people regardless of financial status.
Those African-Americans resourceful and resilient enough to thrive despite these many barriers were then plagued by countless instances of mob violence that were unleashed in black neighborhoods and thousands of lynchings. These often took place with the tacit approval of government officials. One of the most vivid cases of this domestic terrorism is the story of the destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Overarching all of this was the specter of the prison system. While the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution banned slavery it had a giant loophole. Those convicted of a crime could be made to work without pay and against their will. As Douglas Blackmon documented in his book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” thousands of Black men were rounded up by police on minor, often trumped up, charges and sentenced to years and sometimes decades. These men were then rented out to private companies to be worked in inhuman conditions. Many were worked to death with their families never knowing what happened to them. Much of the post-Civil War infrastructure in the South was built on the backs of this unpaid labor.
Think the state of American public education has gone downhill? You’d be right. This was far from an accident. As schools were forced to integrate, every white parent who could took their children out of public education and into private “day schools” to avoid having to comply with the law of the land. Those who couldn’t afford private schools simply left, moving their families away from areas with large black populations. All of a sudden, with public education serving majority non-white populations in cities and towns, it was deemed too expensive and experienced rounds and rounds of budget cuts.
Now there is a shameless attack on African-Americans right to vote. This matters because it is a fundamental attack on a people’s ability to affect policy through who we elect. At a time when we have no powerful lobby and no concentration of wealth comparable to those who would continue the status quo, voting in politicians sympathetic to our goals is the only avenue left to preserve the historic gains we have made.
Personal choice is not enough.
This week President Obama unveiled “My Brother’s Keeper”. An initiative that is supposed to help find ways that federal agencies can work to improve opportunities for young men of color will have no force of law behind it and will not be official policy. While well-intentioned, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s coming two years into the last term of Obama’s presidency and isn’t expected to last beyond it so it’s questionable how much real world good it’s going to do. While its emphasis on personal responsibility is admirable, it does nothing to address the systematic mechanisms that cause many of the disparities between black and white achievement.
As Jelani Cobb pointed out on the February 27th episode of All In with Chris Hayes, increasing the number of Black men graduating with from college does nothing to address the fact that a Black man with a college degree can only expect to earn the same amount of money over his lifetime as a white man with a high school diploma.
There have always been successful Black people in this country. Exceptional men and women who have worked hard and struggled to break through all of the barriers and jumped every hurdle to become successful. However it is the very fact of their exceptionalism that proves the rule. There was another meme going around Facebook that asked a simple question about poverty. “Why is it easier to believe that 150,000,000 Americans are being lazy rather than 400 Americans are being greedy?” I would ask those who post and propagate the theory of Black laziness the same question. Why is it easier to believe that 40 million Black people make bad choices and don’t want anything rather than the blatant evidence that a few corporations and government policies benefit from our financial servitude?