WASHINGTON – Watching on TV the celebration of Selma’s 50th anniversary held in a Black church left me with a very bad feeling. The tone of the speeches was completely out of tune with current realities.
Fight is not over
The focus was entirely on “This fight is not over, because we are still victims of racism”. This is very disappointing. Look, it is understandable that Black leaders want to stress lingering problems and residual racial bias. And it is undeniable that there is still a veneer of unspoken yet evident racial prejudice in America.
However, the accepted Black community narrative whereby the only thing that prevents African-Americans from joining the main stream is racism is both wrong and terribly unhelpful.
Basic civil rights legislation was passed in the 1960s. Discrimination of any kind is against the law. For decades we have accepted that Affirmative Action remedies were appropriate to allow Blacks to regain at least some of the ground lost because of centuries of slavery and then segregation. Through Affirmative Action measures many Blacks jumped in front of the line when it came to university admission, minority set aside in public procurement, public jobs, and a lot more.
Black elected leaders
Besides, for decades we have seen growth in the numbers of Black elected leaders: members of Congress, of State Legislatures, of Municipal Councils. Lots of Black Mayors and some Black Governors.
Last but not least, a majority of White Americans elected Barack Obama, a Black president, twice. In his administration there is a Black Attorney General, a Black Secretary of the gigantic and ultra-sensitive Department Homeland Security, a Black National Security Advisor. The Head of NASA is Black.
The point is that the old, symbolic barriers have been broken.
This of course does not contradict the fact that there is still lingering racism here and there.
But residual racism cannot be used to explain chronic Black under achievement. The numbers are out there. Under performance in academic results. Higher unemployment. Staggering numbers of single mothers. Horrendous numbers of Black on Black homicides. To say that the disproportionate number of young Black males now in prison is the result of racism is foolish self-deception.
These troubling statistics should invite self-examination. Yes, by all means let’s point out all instances of discrimination. Let’s expose the fact that the police in Ferguson has a predatory attitude against Blacks, targeting them for excessive fines in their rapacious quest for extra revenue. This is horribly wrong. This practice (obviously encouraged by top White municipal leaders) should be exposed and condemned. Those responsible should be held into account, fired and prosecuted.
But, once again, the reality of bad (and in some cases unlawful) behavior on the part of some White public officials –offensive as it is– does not explain every shortcoming within the Black community.
Racism does not explain everything
In some instances, failing in school can be explained by adverse conditions. But adverse conditions alone cannot explain systemic failure on a spectacular, national scale.
And racism cannot explain millions of Black teenagers having children without the means to support them, this way condemning them to a life of poverty and under achievement. Likewise, racism alone cannot explain young Blacks killing so many other Blacks.
The speeches in Selma were tired repetitions of old stuff. No new ideas.
The Black civil rights leaders of the 1960s were courageous trail blazers. In truly adverse circumstances, they pointed out that White America was hypocritical by proclaiming universal rights and then denying those very rights to millions of Black Americans. They fought their fight while the White establishment sent police and dogs to attack them, while using discriminatory laws (all of them unconstitutional) to send them to jail.
Eventually the good fight was won. Segregation is illegal. Discrimination of any kind is illegal. Voting rights have been secured. All this happened more than 40 years ago.
America still divided
However, 50 years after Selma America is still profoundly divided. And in part this is due to the fact that, with little justification, today’s Black leaders continue to say that they are victims, that African-Americans are still behind because of lingering prejudice against them.
Martin Luther King famously said that he was hoping that some day all people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
50 years after Selma, while it is indeed appropriate to expose and condemn any form of racism and prejudice, it would be nice to see Black leaders engaged in an effort aimed at understanding “the content of the character” of so many members of their community. What prevents so many Blacks to advance in a society that is far more just and equitable than the one their parents and grandparents lived in?
Are all the problems experienced by African-Americans really rooted in racism? Or is there something else? What about the “content of the character” of so many young Blacks who drop out of school, believing that crime will offer better prospects than an education?