By Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Some say we’ve reached the plateau of racial equality where slogans, demonstrations and boycotts are no longer needed–or effective.
In other words, we’ve arrived at the Promised Land; the Freedom Train has arrived at the station. We now live in a “post-racial” society.
Of course, anyone with common sense or a grasp of reality would shake their heads at those assertions. They will note that lingering racial disparities and various socioeconomic indicators reveal a contrary veracity:
The academic achievement gap between White and Black children is actually wider than it was when students ignored the racist taunts and physical assaults of bigots to ‘integrate’ southern public schools.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Black poverty rate was 40%. Today it is 43%.
Seventy percent of Black households were two parent families 40 years ago. Today, the exact opposite is true.
Three decades after Milwaukee gained a reputation as one of the nation’s most segregated cities, it remains so.
Equally illuminating, the gap between Black and White incomes has closed by only six percent since the so-called riots of 1968, despite the coordinated campaign for economic justice that followed.
Those alarming statistics aside, it’s also true that we have made significant progress in nearly every key area of American life since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the mountaintop:
Nationally, we have made significant political inroads. And locally, we have far exceeded the hopes of the generation past. Not only do we have a Black congresswoman representing a district that is less than 40% African American, but the chair of the Milwaukee County Board and president of the Milwaukee Common Council are African American.
We also have a Black sheriff (and had a Black police chief) who last week congratulated his top deputy who was appointed by the first Black president to become U.S. Marshall for the Eastern District.
The president of the Milwaukee School Board, with oversight over a $1.2 billion budget is not only African American, but uniquely credentialed, as will be the incoming superintendent of the public schools.
The Black middle class has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two decades, and while we have not broken the 20% plateau for private sector middle management positions, we have three Black presidents of financial institutions, dozens of vice presidents of major corporations and countless Black faces staring back at us when we shop, bank, or purchase goods and services.
The president of the state’s largest law firm is an African American. And he just happens to be a partner in one of the largest Black owned corporations in America.
Interestedly, his brother is pastor of one of Milwaukee’s five mega churches, whose collective membership totals the number of Black families living in Milwaukee when my grandparents moved to this city back in the 1940s.
The African American and Black chambers have record members, attesting to our growing business strength. We have three Black financial institutions, a grocer that can claim itself a challenger to the largest chain of grocery stores in the state for Black customers, and several Black businesses that now compete for prime governmental contracts.
That latter point is revealing since just a few years ago all we could hope for were ‘minority’ set asides and subcontracting crumbs.
Theorically, we also have the power of numbers (we’re almost 50% of the city population), and unparelled economic influence–spending over a $2 billion a year—to essentially control the direction of this city.
So, with all this so-called progress, why are we still so seemingly impotent?
Why do we continue to lead the nation in negative social indicators—widest Black academic achievement gap, highest unemployment rate among cities our size, highest Black incarceration rate, teen pregnancy and mortgage rejection rates?
Is this really the mountaintop, or just a slippery slope?
I’ve been posing those questions to movers and shakers in Milwaukee since the announcement that the revolution has been cancelled because we had won the civil rights war. And, as expected, I received contradictory and sometimes nonsensical answers in response.
Often I take those responses with a grain of salt, given the respondent’s history, occupational affiliations and/or socioeconomic and political myopia. But the answers are revealing nonetheless.
For example, a long time public school teacher of renown blamed the 50% Black male high school drop out rate on poor parenting, not to be confused with parents who are poor, which is the excuse of the teachers union. The Black teacher said we are now witnessing the byproduct of the sexual revolution, the first generation of children having children, which was a byproduct of our ‘freedom.’
A widely known parent activist blamed the situation on institutional racism, and an unaccountable teachers union that has bankrupted the district.
A key MPS administrator blamed the phenomenon on inadequate state funding, political myopia and too much sugar in our children’s’ diets.
A state politician simply said taxpayers get the type of educational system they deserve.
Which in the case of Milwaukee means what?
We ‘deserve’ to host the worse Black fourth grade reading proficiency rates in the country? One of the highest Black drop out rates? And one of the widest racial academic achievement gaps?
Wasn’t school integration—excuse me, desegregation—supposed to solve those educational inequities?
Equally intriguing, why isn’t anybody upset about the new status quo? Have we accepted mediocrity and failure as the new Black norm?
Or could the racist genetic inferiority theory be true? You know, the one that suggests that since Black people are genetically (intellectually) inferior, no one should be surprised that only a minority of our children excel.
Let’s stay on that page for a second.
If the Bell Curve is true, does that also explain away all of the other negative social indicators?
Black leaders come up with a half dozen reasons for our current state, but they all agree that if we simply go out and vote, we can legislate our way out of this dilemma.
Indeed, one of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement was equal political representation. Similar to the theory that allowing Black children to sit next to White students would knock down the walls of educational apartheid, if only we had more political representation, all of our social and economic ills would be cured.
Well guess what?
We now have the numbers, albeit with a caveat or two.
(Of the 22 recognizable Black politicians representing Milwaukee, over one third have been convicted of either a ethics violation, criminal complaint or morality scandal.
One of the most likable was thrown out of office a month ago. Three served prison terms in the last five years.
In each case, Black people (myself included) defended them even in the face of overwhelming evidence. And more often than not, there were those who justified the political betrayal by declaring, “Well, White folks do it all the time…” )
Well, it’s report card time.
How have our Black politicians responded to the myriad of issues facing our community? How have they dealt with the educational crisis that has worsened since the turn of the century?
Which Black politician is demanding a proportionate share of stimulus dollars for our community? Who is leading the battle to stem Black on Black crime, increasing the affordable housing pool, or creating jobs? Why isn’t there a unified political voice at the table?
Several of my bloggers (including a prominent Black politician) suggest the reason we’ve made so little progress politically is because most Black politicians either feel a greater responsibility to their party and special interests (particularly unions), or they are content to ride their ego train.
“They do what little they do either because they don’t know better, are afraid to buck the system, or because they know Black folks won’t hold them accountable,” he explained.
“I guess that does mean we’re equal, because our Black politicians are acting just like White ones.”
I don’t know if there’s a consensus about that theory, but there is merit to another hypothesis— that we have squandered more political opportunities than we have taken advantage of. Criticize them as you wish, but I miss the McGees, Gary George and Terrance Pitts. They at least knew how to shake the tree.
But in truth, we can’t solely put our plight at the feet of Black politicians, because history shows all politicians do is massage them.
The power is truly with the people. We have the collective strength to do more than complain. If our collective energies were channeled, we could easily turn this situation around. Instead, something happened after we were told the battle was over. For reasons as yet explained, we became content with mediocrity and despair. Our community imploded. We left the Freedom Train for the subway, and abandoned our cultural platform for the soul train dance line.
And we remained silent as our so-called Black leaders abandoned the people for the party, and civil rights for “silver rights.”
Seemingly overnight, they stopped condemning social dysfunctionality, and even questioned the motives of those of us screaming the alarm about the direction we were heading. Black leaders refused to deal with the root causes, and instead padded their pockets as they blamed our plight on poverty, the social media or contaminated water.
Our cultural dysfunctionality was excused away as the evolution of negritude (excuse my French). It’s part of the new cultural norm.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I questioned a prominent minister who shrugged his shoulders to most of my questions. When asked if we’re heading to hell in a hand basket, he apologetically told me that today’s clergy bury their heads in the sand because ‘the sinners make up our congregation. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, so you don’t condemn promiscuity or other sinful behavior.’
Thus, maybe the right is right. Maybe we have reached the Promised Land but our own self-destructive behavior has stagnated our growth. Or maybe there’s a grand conspiracy, a manifestation of the Willie Lynch philosophy that’s derailed our freedom train.
All I know for sure is that freedom and equality hasn’t been what it’s cracked up to be; what I thought they would be. The Freedom Train has been stuck on autopilot for far too long.
Which brings to mind a meeting held a score and a half ago between members of the Black Press and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. One of our delegation members asked Gingrich about his party’s opposition to affirmative action. His response was both mind boggling and yet eerily logical.
Gingrich said White resistance to affirmative action would result in the weakening if not total rejection of racial remedies.
Falling short of calling the opposition ‘reverse discrimination,’ he said the majority of White Americans (of both political parties) opposed ‘special preferences’ seeing the concept as either misguided public policy or unfounded reparations.
He concluded by advising that if Black Americans could just wait another 50 or 60 years, the issue would be moot, as Americans of all strips would have moved beyond racism and bigotry.
By mid-century, he suggested, America would morph into the America envisioned by Dr. King and others, where all people would be judged by the content of their character (or look and act like Tiger Woods).
In other words, Black America should tolerate injustice and suffer in silence and our children, or their children would live in a just and equal society.
That means, according to my calculations, if we simply bide our time and stay the course, by 2050 there should be about 82,421 additional Black high school drop outs; 142,582 babies born to poor single women, 93,211 of whom will be borderline illiterate; 20,321 Black families denied a mortgage loan; 29,333 Black men sentenced to prison on felony convictions; and 64,897 new crack and heroin victims.
That’s a lot of lost souls. But they will probably be victims whether we question the direction of the Freedom Train or not.
Truth of the matter is, too many of us brought into the lie that the movement is over, that we reached the Promised Land. But instead of milk and honey, the streets were paved with food stamps, video games and gangsta rap CDs.