By Dr. William Small, Jr.
Old sayings often get to be old because they are most often true. One such saying that comes immediately to mind, suggests that when America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia. The current Covid-19 crisis illustrates that in spite of all of the political, social and economic progress that we are proud of proclaiming, it is really time for Black America to take a reality check.
There is no dispute that Black folks in America have enjoyed success in any number of areas, in fact, we have continued to make advancements in every phase of American life. And really no one is or should be surprised. The open hostility, physical violence, forced marginalization and other forms of brutality that were codified into American law and custom occurred not because the predominant belief was that we could not compete.
The marginalization and brutality to which Black people in America, and globally, are subjected to existed to ensure the predominant society that we will not be able to compete. In a capitalistic society, it is very easy for participants to begin to over value certain aspects of the opportunity to simply participate in the effort to “catch the brass ring”.
“You cannot win it unless you are in it” is an old adage that has become an artificial standard for judging one’s engagement and prospect for success. On the track, ”the rabbit” in the race never wins. We have to ask ourselves whether we as Black folks have taken on the mind set of that proverbial rabbit? Black people have been excluded from legitimate opportunities to participate for so long, until the very opportunity to participate, even on a marginal level, is too often seen as the victory in and of itself.
Participation and competition are not synonyms. Participation or competition that is not accompanied by any real prospect of winning is really little more than a pacifying form of engagement. Covid-19 has visited Black communities across this nation to once again remind us of our social, political and economic vulnerable status as American citizens. A government that does not extend to its citizens, the equal protection of the law, and an equal opportunity to compete and win , suggest that the game which government is managing “is rigged”.
If I as a participant accept my mere participation as the victory, then the game is not just rigged, but it is lost at the outset. Likewise, the inclusion “of one” does not suggest that the barrier has fallen and there is room for more- not to mention “many more”. In 2020, Black people are still celebrating “ the first” which more than likely translates into “the only”. This essay is not a rant against individual and personal achievement. I am, nevertheless, unapologetically arguing that unless we as a people begin to re-emphasize and consciously reconnect with the importance of our collective achievement, we will with increasing efficiency, insure our continuing demise and disempowerment as a people.
The profile of Black illness and death that the Covid-19 pandemic has painted of Black life and success in America, I predict will be replicated on the global stage as well. This profile provides a direct challenge to all that we as Black people are comfortable calling success. That challenge says: that unless those of us who are fortunate enough to successfully compete, on any level, raise our torch to shine a light on the poverty and the injustices suffered by our Brothers and sisters, we will in effect cast a long and dark shadow over their misery.
“The successful Black folks” will become the new guarantors of our brothers’ perpetual misery. If we cannot commit to be the architects of our own salvation, how can we expect anyone to assume that responsibility for us? Moreover, if we can in our own minds, rise to the heights of power and success in the reputed richest and most powerful nation in the world and our people, quite generally, after hundreds of years of direct hostility continue to suffer the injustices of government practices and policies, how are we defining success? Who has the primary responsibility to protect and defend the rights and hopes of Africans and African Americans who are being systematically left behind?
The attention given to the special impacts of this pandemic during this crisis will determine the general condition of Black America when the next calamitous event occurs. We will either be stronger, or we will be weaker, but predictably we will not be the same. Discrimination, marginalization and exclusion are erosive. The condition of Black America, as revealed by the impacts of the current Covid-19 pandemic reflects a sad irony, in that in a Presidential election year, when the Black vote has been acknowledged as being essential to the possibility of defeating President Trump and returning to a greater semblance of political sanity and rationality as a nation, it takes a world-wide pandemic for America to hopefully reexamine the historic consequences of hundreds of years discrimination against Black people. In spite of the fact that loyal Black Americans constitute a significant majority of the lives that have been lost to date, we arrive at an acknowledgement of these devastating impacts on Black America as an “appendix to the national conversation”.
Without calling names, or drawing comparisons between the old and the new, it suffices to say that the voices of establishment Black Leadership have become entirely too silent and neglectful in addressing the negative conditions impacting the opportunity structure for Black America. Have we locked ourselves into a political catch-22? Is it that unless we are running for a national office, we have nothing to say about the condition of Black America? Moreover, if we are running for national office, we cannot say anything specific about the conditions of Black America, because we have to represent everybody?
The political space between Black elected officials, organizations and institutions and Black empowerment organizations like Black Lives Matter, Dr. William Barber and a host of non-establishment endorsed grass roots movements is irrationally inexplicable. If Black America is not crumbling under the weight of “its own success”, where is the political agenda for Black Empowerment? Where is the conversation about the development of such an agenda? Has the pattern of Black political action and engagement become a prescription to insure the perpetual marginalization and political impotence of collective Black American interests?
If the answer to that question is no, then the most important question waiting to be answered is: what is it that prevents us from being able to protect and aggressively defend the interests and collective well-being of our communities, and our people?