How many Head Start employees/Civilian police review boards/public option supporters thank the Black Panther Party for its pioneering efforts in healthcare, education and social justice movements?
Change is painful and challenging. It costs much more than we could probably afford to acknowledge when we begin any meaningful transformation. And not just in physical violence but in psychological trauma. Change agents are rarely there to sip the champagne or pick up the honorary degree. It’s what makes someone like former Pres. Mandela not only extraordinary but very singular.
The U.S. is in the middle of a game change, both economically and socially. The increasing wealth gap and the clear inadequacies of health care and education may be slowly shredding America’s stability and chipping away at its prosperity. Consider the plight of the family farm. The family farm had a nostalgic hold on the American imaginary. But it eventually became obsolete. The economics couldn’t withstand the competition from international farmers and the economies of scale introduced by agribusiness.
The shift was long and painful. We see the last, weak vestiges of it in farm supports and subsidies. But Willie Nelson and Farm Aid couldn’t stop it, nor can the locavore movement. The unemployed and underemployed will not be able to pass up the food bargains offered up by Walmart. The long delayed settlement with African American farmers can’t stop this. And none of it will staunch the loss of African American owned land.
And land is still a critically important power base.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives noted that:
“Comparing the U.S. Agriculture Census data on African-American farmland ownership for 1910 and 1997, it shows a drastic decline from its peak of 15 million acres in 1910 to 2.4 million acres in 1997. … With rural landownership clearly being a significant economic resource base in the African-American community controls, why do African-Americans continue to lose their land?” (http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com/aalandown04.htm) [emphasis added]
This pattern was already in place when the mortgage meltdown began. African Americans and Latinos were often targeted for subpar loans. But even the historic $335 million Bank of America/Countrywide settlement won’t staunch the flow nor the other settlements that will follow.
Home is as one writer notes where you go when the marriage doesn’t work out, when the layoff catches you unaware, where you contribute when things are going well for you. It has a psychological and spiritual value well beyond its material value.
Those who recognized what was happening got ahead of the curve and made the shift. Those who did not, suffered. Some never recovered. Political maturity is about recognizing and acting upon shifts. Noah is relevant here.
That brings me to Occupy Wall Street.
The complaints and belittling of this movement among some African American pundits may be ignoring some important facts.
What Bayard Rustin argued is still true, African Americans need political allies. Allies are not dates. We don’t need to like the same music or party together. We don’t have to agree on everything but must nail down specific objectives and responsibilities. So the OWS supporters never sympathized with the black struggle before. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. So what? If we can bring about some positive changes through OWS, let’s do it and do it enthusiastically. Not disproportionately. We shouldn’t necessarily be on the front lines absorbing all the blows. But we have to be in it or in something to win. With the decline of politically effective black churches, unions, fraternal organizations, and a Democratic party that is more comfortable lecturing us rather than addressing and fighting for issues, we are desperately in need of a revitalized political infrastructure. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his despair when confronting disaffected African American youth in Los Angeles. They weren’t part of churches. And they were facing a largely unresponsive power structure. (http://whitehousetapes.net/clip/lyndon-johnson-martin-luther-king-jr-president-johnson-and-martin-luther-king-jr-watts-riots) That generation are now senior citizens. They have raised another generation that appear to be most effective as consumers.
Don’t like OWS? Create or integrate into another sustainable, effective organization. And not just point and click groups like Color of Change but boots on the ground groups. Cf. the Tea Party.
Support for all poor and disenfranchised people seems to be declining, in part because everyone is facing dire economic challenges and in part because our caustic political and cultural discourse scoffs at serious critique of the economic system. Remember Phil Gramm’s mental recession? White guilt is over. The armies of salvation will continue to march but can only access the available resources within a paradigm most acknowledge to be flawed. We need new assumptions and new thought to be effective. Research has to be as important as inspiration and fiery rhetoric.
Stay spiritual but don’t pray yourself into irrelevance. Affirmations are products of prosperous societies. You don’t see anyone in Darfur, Bosnia or Syria invoking these with any success. So recognize your privilege as an African American and build upon it.
We have to think in generational terms. Cue the Panthers. Build legacies and power bases that you might not be lauded for or even see in your lifetime. We can’t just live for our children but we can’t live only for ourselves.
Remember. I was saddened to hear that City Councilman Jumaane Williams and Public Advocate aide Kirsten J. Foy were detained during the 2011 West Indian Day Parade in New York City. I was more depressed when he evinced surprise. Even if it was only meant rhetorically, this forgetfulness does real damage to others experiencing these same things without the benefit of titles and connections. As we get older, we can’t forget what we experienced, what we witnessed and read and most importantly, how it made us feel: crazy, alienated, depressed, vulnerable and out of control.
All in all, it is time for African Americans to embrace political maturity. To pick up where Dr. King left off at the intersection of economics, spirit and justice with allies, releasing the past and embracing the reality of and necessity for transition.