Monday, June 14, 2010

Us Black Folk

Unlike any other ethnic group or, more accurately from an anthropological perspective, sub-group in the United States, upwardly mobile Black folks seem all too willing to sacrifice cultural affinity on the self-serving altar of rugged individualism than any other group on earth, which is a concept that does not exist among any indigenous group found in Africa. Social scientists, I among them, often argue only to be cast as apologists for tribalism that this phenomenon is a lasting vestige of slavery.
Communalism is a philosophy that binds Africans however tenuously as a whole, and gives rise to a dichotomy, which fuels frustration many conscious blacks in the progressive movement feel at a segment of our community, which openly fosters an unapologetic I-got-mine-you-get-yours ethos. It is a conservative community, which eschews affirmative action although many of its most prominent members are unabashed beneficiaries of race based preferences either directly or indirectly and, ironically, can attribute their very success to the level playing field it championed.
Separatism often garbed under the deceptive cloak of nationalism holds many ethnic groups to a collective talking point, which enables them to marshal their franchise to the benefit or detriment of the whole. We see evidence of this phenomenon when poor and lower middle class whites, comprising huge, influential swaths of the mid-west beset by a wholesale loss of high paying, manufacturing jobs as a result of ill-conceived US sponsored trade policies, voted against their very own economic interest to support an ultra-conservative platform in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections respectively.
Poor and middle class whites abhorred being identified with a party that has been associated traditionally with both black and liberal causes irrespective of the demonstrable benefits to them by an agenda, which mirrors that of poor and middle class blacks: job security, affordable health care and sane energy policies; unlike those negotiated in the dead of the night by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who to this day has resisted efforts to disclose the participants of his infamous 2000 energy summit, which has resulted in now disastrous energy policies to not only the entire US middle class but the environment itself.
Unfortunately, white self-identity is so closely tied to race, they unhesitatingly sacrificed their own self-interest in order to assume the dubious mantle of bona fide card carrying white folk. “The major point of contention, then, between Western [sociologists] and some African [ones] rests on the concept of individualism versus communalism as the desired goal in Western Culture, versus communalism in most African cultures – that is a concept, which takes precedence over the needs of the individual.”
Toni Morrison, writing about this point in Western literature, notes: “these community values, (I call them village values) are uppermost in the minds of black writers, and this may be a feeling of village values as opposed to Gopher Prairie despair that causes so much misadventure in white criticism of black writers: such critics tend not to trust or respect a hero who prefers the village and its tribal values to heroic loneness and alienation.
When a character defies a village law or shows contempt for its value, it may be seen as a triumph to white readers, while blacks may see it as an outrage.” Poet Renny Golden says, “A fundamental value that shapes Western European emphasis on the right to accumulate, and to ownership of property and people, is the right of the individual. Western law, for example, legalizes the individual right of property owners...
Communal rights, on the other hand, formed the moral and public codes and laws, which governed tribal life in the Americas and Africa. It is one’s obligation to community, not oneself, which is binding. Indians, blacks, and Latinos discover their identity in and through community.“Slaves and maroons of the Caribbean and Latin and North America preserved the African tradition of Mati, which emphasizes a ritual of kinship that implies a friendship based on deep bonds of solidarity. This practice, referring to the experience of having shared passage on the same slave ship, extended the sense of community care and responsibility for the people that slave culture embraced. As in Indian’s culture, black identity is discovered through solidarity with one’s people, not through the Western hero’s quest.”
The communities our forebears knew before the middle passage ceased to exist largely due to the advent of integration in the late 1940s. Before that point, highly successful blacks had no choice but to live side by side with poor and lower middle class ones. These communities had expectations of success and, more importantly, standards of conduct, which no longer exist in the inner city.
Another unintended consequence was that desegregation became a driving force behind the unspoken class divide we now see evident in the black community. Wedge issues like equal opportunity, gay rights, Hip Hop culture and morality only serve to exacerbate the divide. The greatest growth of racial integration occurred as a direct result of the Civil Rights movement, which to a large degree was primarily funded, advocated for and led by young, middle class, college educated blacks and equally young, liberal Jews.
One of the best-known spokesman for racial integration during the Civil Rights era was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was himself a product of a solidly middle class upbringing. As a result of the movement he reluctantly spearheaded despite revisionist depictions of history, most of the legal basis for racial segregation was repealed. The primary barriers to racial integration that remained were strictly social and customary ones, which could not be repealed as easily as could laws, however.
Previously prosperous predominantly black communities such as the Greenwood area of Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose growth was spurred because blacks were forbidden by law to live or own businesses in the white city and were expected to be out of town by sunset (an onerous if unspoken rule, which was also known as the sunset law in many states during post-reconstruction. Ignoring it frequently resulted in literally grave consequences to the uninformed).
However, “by 1921, the Greenwood area had grown to include 191 businesses and about 15,000 people, including lawyers, doctors and dentists, a movie theatre, hotel and newspaper. During the oil boom of the 1910s, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished—including the Greenwood neighborhood, which came to be known as "the Negro Wall Street" (now commonly referred to as "the Black Wall Street"). The area was home to several prominent black businessmen, many of them multimillionaires.” Although few predominately black communities enjoyed the prosperity and growth epitomized by Greenwood, we can still see remnants of similar communities throughout the country.
By the late 1950s, early 1960s, upper middle class blacks began fleeing the inner city as fast as their charter bus sized station wagons and 20¢ per gallon lead gasoline would carry them straight to tangibly hostile, suspicious, barely welcoming suburbs; bused out neighborhoods cropping up like target duckies on the outskirts of major cities, which allowed these intrepid pilgrims to realize a vestige of the American dream. Urban decay, blight and rampant criminality, replaced the well maintained communities, which characterized the once solidly middle classed inner city neighborhoods left in their wake.
Fat, sleek and well fed, reviling in their own self-aggrandizement, posh country club memberships, exclusive secondary schools, fawning adherence to prosperity ministries, and enviable vacation destinations such as Oaks Buff (long the vacation destination of the black elite. Oaks Buff is outside of Martha’s Vineyard, and was once derisively described by famed jurist, the late, great Hon. Bruce Wright as “Spook’s Buff”), these black businessmen, ministers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, educators, tradesmen and civil servants - brought into the myth, fed by wall-to-wall commentary, and regurgitated by highly paid touts: ill-informed, racist conservative talking heads on some of the most reactionary radio and television shows on the air - that they had made it, why can’t “you people” (conveniently ignoring the structural inequalities that make success for a large segment of the black community an illusory dream)?
Although higher education has been the traditional means of upward mobility in the black community, any competent, graduate economic student can illustrate with precise mathematical graphs and charts, that the economy cannot absorb all of the college educated workers our colleges and universities graduate each year in the best of times. Conservative pundits like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Bob Grant before them barely made it out of high school. But they do not allow the facts (demonstrating that white privilege is alive and kicking) to get in the way of hyperbole. They adroitly spin truth to lay blame squarely at the foot of poor and middle class black students who major in “liberal arts,” as opposed to “hard sciences” such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering simplistically suggesting that poor career choices are what causes a large percentage to be underemployed - if they manage to obtain employment after graduation at all. The ones that do not, rarely ever manage to obtain work in the field with which they majored.
Ultra-wealthy black entertainers, businessmen and politicians, many of whom originate from the black middle class, inwardly cringe in shame at the wholesale destruction of black inner city neighborhoods, which their parents and grandparents abandoned en mass leaving a hopeless void only to be filled by unremitting self-hate, anger and a prison mentality characterized by drooping britches leaving often soiled drawers in full view, which uninformed observers believe is reflective of Hip Hop culture, but in reality is only really reflective of the homo-thug culture popularized in jails and prisons throughout the country.
Instead their finite resources go into feel good projects they boast about in self-congratulatory conversation over Earl Grey tea and sweet crumpets, which serves communalism in concept but also sadly illustrates an elitist, despair ridden, attitude that upper, middle class blacks, unfortunately characterized by Comedian Bill Cosby who “took aim at blacks who don't take responsibility for their economic status, blame police for incarcerations and teach their kids poor speaking habits,” have toward less fortunate blacks.
In the antebellum south, black mammies, often unconsciously perpetuated this enduring pathos; white supremacy played out by adopting Eurocentric individualistic values in contrast to egalitarian ones represented by Afrocentric communalism, which ignore a straightforward sociological fact: whites given the choice will always hire, rent and loan capital to people who look like them regardless of their competencies, character or credit worthiness.
Mammies were socialized to enforce white supremacy with an iron hand among hapless big house slaves but also wielded considerable influence in socializing backward field-hands ignorant of plantation protocol. During the civil war these mammies were seen fiercely protecting Massa’s property often at the cost of their own lives. We now see this scraping obeisance to white supremacist values being played out in corporate America, entertainment, and to a much lesser degree in politics.
Black females have been given positions of immense responsibility, influence and authority because they are considered less threatening then black men, but squander the opportunity to bring up ambitious brothers at every turn all while bemoaning a dismal lack of marriage eligible (read that: tall, handsome, heterosexual, buff, no children, criminal record, good credit, formal education, or vocational skill sets) black men in the same breath.
These unconscious "sistas" have become the new Aunt Jemimas: materialistic gatekeepers stoking the embers of inequality, fiercely guarding the status quo because they got theirs, why can’t the brothers get theirs; utterly oblivious to the institutionalized racism that fueled America’s economic engine from its inception, they ignore pernicious evidence of inequality in a weave flinging, hip swaying, sassy talking, finger wagging, irrationally loyal effort to go-along-in-order-to-get-along.
The image of the lone white hero still reigns supreme in popular culture. It is an image driven by art imitating life, which is in turn informed by rugged individualism: a visceral Eurocentric need to dominate, emasculate and own.
No other culture ignores its own collective interest in order to achieve individual success like black folks generally and black women particularly. Although all can share equally in how this persistent pathology eviscerates an entire generation of black boys and girls, it is the responsibility of those WEB Dubois termed the “talented tenth” to affirmatively remediate the problem through education.
We must educate each other to be conscious of the benefit to the whole, by raising up one. Dr. Dubois once wrote, “The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010


Success seems to be an illusory dream for me as I comfortably entered middle age earlier this year. As of late, though, it has become an obsession of mine to determine anecdotally if fate, luck, or other intangible factor plays a role in how one achieves success in this life. The "rugged individualism" is a unique worldview, which still dominates realpolitik in these United States. The vast majority of overworked, underpaid Americans would still obdurately subscribe to a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap, work-your-ass-to-the-bone, stoicism that traditionally defined us as Americans, and promised a rainbow at the end of the proverbial tunnel. That rainbow typically manifested in demonstrable wealth, material acquisition, or maybe just a better opportunity with which to attain those things if not for ourselves, then certainly for our progeny. As the twilight sets on this American empire, I often wonder what life would have been like had I had been born in an emerging economy, much like China of today, and even one or two of the sub-Saharan African countries like economic powerhouse Nigeria, or the continent's technological showcase, South Africa. America is still the richest country on the face of the earth. But its economy was mature before I was born during the tumultuous 1960s. Opportunities that existed for upward mobility as I attained my majority were contingent on a veritable host of subjective factors, which all conspire against success, because institutional racism still abounds in this country, apologists, Uncle Toms, Aunt Jemimas, and sell outs notwithstanding. Now that America's economy is in a tailspin that President Obama has been futilely trying to stem like the BP oil spill, entrenched racists resentful of Obama's victory, cynically misuse that historic victory to now say we are in a post racial society. Social programs like affirmative action that leveled the playing field enabling us to obtain high paying jobs, or adequate capital to grow successful and, more importantly, enduring businesses had become anachronistic. The traditional means of wealth transfer in this country is still intergenerational. Unfortunately, neither one of my biological parents had much wealth or much by way of intelligence either. What deposable income they did have was quickly squandered on either themselves or their pet projects. Left to fend for myself, I did not realize "self actualization" as famed, humanist psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow termed it in his defining work "A Theory of Human Motivation." As I gaze lovingly at my infant son's pictures, I vow that he will not suffer as I have in this life, being intentionally thwarted by few internal but also many external forces from achieving note, success, or accoutrements thereof...