An Inward-Outward Strategy for the Black Community

Posted by Melvin Bray on September 29th, 2005 filed in Home-Training

Is it me, or is any other Black person sick of the polarized debate over what exactly it is that Blacks need to overcome in America in the 21st century?

On the one hand you have the black neo-conservatives—the first beneficiaries (young and old) of the rights, privileges and opportunities gained in our struggle to overthrow American apartheid—who are convinced that the only things now holding Blacks back from upward mobility in America are self-destructive habits, the refusal to assimilate and an unwillingness to work hard enough. On the other side are your dyed-in-the-wool liberals who, having waged war and won some hard fought legal and political battles to tear down the overt trappings of institutionalized racism, are fully persuaded that what continues to hinder Black upward mobility in America are the more covert inner-workings of a die-hard racist social, political and economic order. Does anyone else see how much of a false dilemma this debate creates? The debate itself, for Blacks, is totally counter-productive and beside the point.

As long as the debate is either/or, Blacks will never make progress. As long as its “self-reliance” versus “societal restitution,” the black community will be a house divided against itself. The dominant culture is the only one that benefits from this either/or strategy—either Republican or Democrat; either liberal or conservative; either middle-class or poor; etc. The African-American community needs an “Inward-Outward” strategy.

I must be honest and acknowledge I was not chiefly compelled to write this out of a mounting distain for liberal politics. Although I believe liberalism has some very real, even dangerous, limitations, at least it’s oriented toward social and economic benefit for all (okay, most). Conservatism on the other hand seems unapologetically more and more oriented toward social and economic benefit for those “who deserve it”. That is what compels me to write. I am dismayed by the homage Black conservatives pay to the politics of the corporate- and power-elite in hope of or reimbursement for the privilege of aspiring to the ranks of either.

Don’t get me wrong, Black conservatives’ concerns regarding the impact of self-destructive behavior on the Black community certainly have merit: in an internal discussion of our community’s impediments to success. But to continue to paint with broad strokes upon the imaginations of the American public images of a self-serving, pathetic, lazy Blackness that references less than 20% of who we are; to imply that this is the only, or even primary, public discourse that needs to be had; or to imply that internal improvements can somehow satisfy our legitimate concerns regarding external economic opportunity is in a word—self-defeating.

Conservatives have a lot to say about the Black condition in America:

  • They often say that the economic limitations thwarting blacks in America are rooted in the much touted statistic that 70% of black children don’t have both parents in the home.
  • They often assert that the breakdown of the family and the erosion of personal responsibility can be historically linked to the rise of big government.
  • They often argue that civil rights automatically translate into adequate, if not equal, opportunity.
  • They often purport that everyone regardless of race or creed has the liberty and freedom in America to chart his/her own social, political and economic destiny.
  • They often reason that regardless of how this country was founded, now that Blacks can hold office, own property, start businesses and otherwise be in positions of authority, there are no real impediments to legitimate societal improvements.

Let me pose a few questions that I hope would cause one to re-examine the unqualified veracity of some of these claims:

  1. When exactly was it that the black family was considered “intact” in America, and what was our social/economic status at that time? How has that status changed since then?
  2. Before we chalk up the break down of the family to the often rehearsed but never substantiated (except anecdotally) detrimental rise of big government, can we even consider the more easily documented impact that the 2nd World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the return from each might have had? Black males were disproportionately represented in each; significant numbers were indisputably denied medical/mental-health care; and many were systemically deprived of promised educational benefits and employment opportunities upon their return.
  3. What does “equal rights” to a piece of pie really mean when the entire pie was divided up before you were even allowed to sit down at the table?
  4. What does economic “liberty” mean for a person starting at zero who needs capital just to provide for his most basic of human dignities—food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, work, education—and is constrained by the laws that govern the place where he finds himself to solicit each of these necessities (or at least the first 5) from the very society that made a conscious decision to start him at zero? How is that “liberty” different than that of those who started with an inheritance, flat out stole one or were sustained until they amassed one? (Not that the first person just can’t do for himself, but how is it different?)
  5. If white proprietors take some land, borrow money from a white-owned bank (where they will later invest their earnings), start a business on that land, put together a majority white board that writes the bylaws and establishes all organizational policies, establish exclusive relationship with virtually only white vendors, market to primarily white customers, produce a product that is of use or can only be afforded by the middle-class, nonetheless hire a black CEO and CSO, integrate middle management and even employ 70% black labor, WHO IS IN POWER (racially speaking)? To whose economic benefit will the operations of this company accrue? How many people—not just of color, but of a mind to recognize and want to rectify the power disparity—would have to be brought into the organization (and on what levels) to affect change? How is this analogy different from most predominantly black cities (i.e., New Orleans)?

Some conservative assertions are insidious. They are repeated so often that over time they become uncritically regarded as truth. Conservatives’ attempts to draw a straight line between two-parent homes and economic prosperity are what teachers of rhetoric would call non sequitur. The fallacy of logic is that there are too many variables and too many exceptions. Two unemployed or underemployed married parents can make just as little as one unemployed or under-employed parent. To put it in mathematical terms: having two parents in the home may be a corollary to economic prosperity (in as much as brushing one’s teeth might also be :-), but it’s not a postulate.

The same critique applies to the often repeated Black conservative appeals to the greater “dignity” of our progenitors. Though we honor and learn from our grandfathers who would rather have worked menial jobs than accept what they believed to be a “hand-out,” the fact that they did is part of the reason why their grandchildren are still struggling today for those 6 human dignities. To argue any differently is to engage in another fallacy of logic known as ad homonym. What might have been different if our grandfathers saw “hand-outs” as “grants” or “subsidies”? Our economic system has seldom rewarded folks for their “dignity”. The truth is simply that our economic system needs someone to do the menial tasks, and our grandfathers obliged.

Conservatives’ concerns, though very valid considerations of internal realities, overlook the answers to most of the questions above. These questions have to do with how the Black community has in the past or might better in the present engage the external realities that also impact its socio-economic well-being in America.

America OWES… (it may never pay up, but) it owes the African-American community some things: only because it has systematically denied them those things. Freedom is precious, but it was only a beginning. The vote is important, but it was only a small lateral step. Access to the same institutions as whites was only a small lateral concession as well. The equality that America owes (but may never pay) all historically disenfranchised persons within its borders is a redistribution of all real property that those same persons worked to generate. That’s where “equal rights” and “liberty” in a socio-political sense actually begin. That’s the external work that must continue to be done while at the same time we tackle our internal concerns. Neither may ever be achieved, yet both must never be overlooked.

The home-training that seems particularly applicable here is that the oppressed should never allow their oppressor to dictate their agenda. Or as I once heard a Jamaican mother say, “De spida caun’t tell de grashoppa how high jump an’ where.” Grasshoppers should also probably be leery of advice from those who climb into spiders’ webs of their own accord.

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