By Dr. William Small, Jr.
The 21st century and the years escorting us into the present place in history flashed a lot of warning signs that our egos and our mythologies made it very easy to ignore. America has been blessed since its inception with geographical and technical arrows in it’s national quiver, that reinforced a battery of irrational notions of ethnic superiority and manifest destiny. Protected by oceans that nature provided, made wealthy by the free labor, talent and natural wealth stolen from Africa and the civilizations of Native Americans and Africans in the new world, America confused deception, greed and immorality with genius and moral entitlement.
Native Americans who were responsible for the survival of the early colonies were not to be responded to in kind, instead, they were to be cheated, exploited and if necessary driven to extinction under proclamations reciting special entitlement and “The White Man’s Burden”. In the end, it made little difference whether or not ”the other” was attempting to be friend or foe, what was important was the ability to identify an exploitable difference. Native Americans and Africans who defended the early colonies, who fought for the colonies in the American Revolutionary War were destined to experience the pain of betrayal and denigration. The denigration and betrayal and exclusion from the possibility of inclusion was owed to nothing other than their “otherness”.
The historical relationship between Haiti and the United States of America is more revealing of the philosophical under pining’s of American Democracy than Patrick Henry’s proclamations valuing death over a life without liberty. How can America who benefited so essentially from the contribution of Haitian Troops, in America’s war for independence and expansion, be so decidedly exploitative in suppressing the developmental needs and interests of its former ally? Haiti never abandoned its allegiance or quest for friendship with the United States. The United States never extended a sincere hand of friendship or assistance to Haiti. Neither has the United States acknowledged any appreciation for Haiti’s contribution to its establishment and development. Today, the President of the United States simply regards Haiti as another “shit hole country”. Sadly, that characterization is painfully reflective of the predominant United States attitude and policy position on issues pertaining to Black interests.
The same behaviors and injustices are evident in the pattern of policies and social justice attitudes that America has extended to every ethnic minority group that has “been used” on its path to national enrichment and empowerment. The enduring myth of the American commitment to inclusion owes its existence to the misreporting of American Social and Political History. This myth has survived primarily because the alleged veracity of America’s over- arching commitment to democracy and inclusion has never been adequately challenged. Therefore, the political and psychological convenience provided in the process of reducing the issue of social alienation and injustice, in America, to “a Black versus white racial issue” has given legitimacy to policies and practices supporting white supremacy and social justice in America since its inception. Consequently, the history of the discrimination experienced by Asian, Italian, Irish, Jewish and other ethnicities, in America, is under evaluated because of the conveniently visible, but overly narrow, focus on the artificial construct of race. Black versus white or perhaps more accurately, white versus Black, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the conflict by guaranteeing that everyone virtually enters the conversation through one of two portals.
American policy and practice have been able to ensure the continued existence of a Black door to opportunity and an America white door leading to opportunity. The American opportunity structure still has its white only signs, only the “warning script” has changed. The success of a few cannot erase the truth in the stories of Travon, Eric and Sandra and “stop and frisk” and the McConnell/Republican Party reaction to the election of America’s first African American President. Let us not fail to observe the continuous “open assault” that is being waged on voting rights and the exploitative banking practices that continue to exist in Black communities. America still has its ghettos and reservations and barrios. America also has its ever-expanding homeless communities of veterans, and severely damaged, broken and displaced others. In these expanding and surprisingly invisible spaces democracy prevails, because anyone can tread, but only for as long as they can barely survive in a sea of neglect and injustice.
For the time being, there is a new sheriff in town. With his assistance, unapologetic arrogance, and white supremacist attitudes, the myth of America’s concern with the interest and well being of “the other” has begun to wither in the bright light of 21st century American politics. To a large degree, today it is fear, insecurity, hatred and bigotry that fuels the machinery of government that is calculated to “make America great again”. This stark reality creates a glaring challenge for America to develop a 21st century realistic definition of itself and its future in a rapidly changing and radically altered global community.
The challenge, however, is not just a challenge for America, it is a special challenge for all Americans for whom the system has demonstrated its incapacity to ensure equality of opportunity and to provide equal protection under the laws of man. The “un-varnishing of America’s soul” offers an even more critical challenge to Black America and to Black leadership. That challenge being to define and adopt, in light of our “American Experience”, a course of political action and engagement that protects and empowers our legitimate political interests in what might truly be the last act in the great experiment called American Democracy. This essay is really about that challenge.
In addressing the issues of Black disempowerment and exclusion, let me say at the outset that Black empowerment is a condition that only Black America can repair. Black America must claim the responsibility to create the political architecture for the repairing of Black America. Somewhere along the line, and it has been a long and contorted line, we as Black people have lost our political compass. We have drifted away from the struggle for desegregation and community empowerment, and we have landed in a place where the adoption of strategies to simply become integrated into the American mainstream is the only publicly sanctioned conversation. Any initiative that focuses on a remedy to specifically address of historical injustices and injuries to Black people is now regarded as “reverse racism” or too narrow in scope to warrant isolated national attention. Black leadership has swallowed that pill.
No ethnic group, that I am aware of, has become an integral part of the American political establishment and power structure by abandoning its collective self -interests and the interests of its institutions. No group simply “ integrates” its way into political power and social inclusion. That approach is a non strategy and time has proven it to be so. For Black America, integration as pursued and practiced, has been proven to be a one-way dead-end street that is replete with its restrictive covenants. Frankly, there is no meaningful inclusion, in politics, without the power to advocate for one’s collective interests. The question is whether or not, in this time of dual crisis, Black leaders can foster the collaborative spirit that corals Black resources and Black interests in order to develop an agenda for the demarginalization of Black Communities and Black political interests. Integration is an empty victory , as time has proven it to be. A question of equal importance is whether or not Black leadership will then have the courage and resolve to maintain the solidarity that will enable us to press for the implementation of that agenda. I submit, that unless we as the Broader African American community, commit to extract a greater degree of accountability from our elected officials and community leaders, the answers to each of these questions will prove to be sadly disappointing.
The health and economic crises that challenge the democratic security and future of America at this very moment also poses an equally severe challenge and crisis to the future of Black health and Black wealth in America. African American leaders and communities can ill afford to idly stand by following the hearse and watching the spectacle. The times demand that all hands be on deck. At a time when the national conversation is about restructuring a social and economic safety net for American citizens, where is the Black lead conversation regarding Reparations for Black America. When legislation is proposed in the United States Congress to provide needed support for HBCU’s, where are the studies, conducted by HBCU’s, collectively, or individually, or offered by consortia or advocacy groups, to buffer the arguments supporting the legislative initiatives? If such research and documentation exists, why is it not known to the public? In times of crisis, such as the immediate, what do our Medical Schools offer to the public solution? The same questions could be asked of our social work, counseling, law and other college and university offerings. Inside of the very crisis in which we find ourselves at the moment, the opportunity cries out for institutional leadership to develop responsive, safe, and constructive programs to enhance the social value of their institutions, increase the prospects of improved funding, and prepare the predicate for an expanded conversation about student debt relief and equal institutional support. I repeat, there are some things that we will simply have to “seize the time” and take the initiative on in order to fashion the remedy for ourselves.
From the establishment of the first colony in Jamestown, Virginia to the current season in which we find ourselves, there is no aspect of experience that African Americans have not had in government on the local state or national level. Examining that record of engagement, it is equally clear that the political system has been consistently resistant to the emergence of Black political power, independent influence and constructive self- determination. America must not be permitted to forget the fact that African descendant people were among the earliest , non-natives, to arrive on these shores. Neither should it be forgotten that our record of loyalty and unrequited service to this country is equal to, if not greater than, that of any other ethnic group in the country. Nevertheless, our communities remain among the most marginalized, underdeveloped and under- capitalized communities in the country. Sadly, that diminished civic/human political status has become baked into the social fabric and opportunity structure of This “great experiment”. It is important to note that we as African Americans are failing to recite the reminders.
In the end, America may prove herself to not be better than her record to date suggests. Moreover, those proofs may in fact be beyond our ability to materially influence and control. The question for the future of Black America and thusly Black health, wealth and survivorship in America is: whether we have the will to acknowledge the truth of our history and condition; and reengage this struggle in a way that offers a more hopeful future for our children and the universal interests of our collective community?
Dr. William Small, Jr. is a retired educator and a former Trustee and Board Chairman at South Carolina State University. He currently serves as a member of the Area Commission for the Technical College of The Low Country.