What is America’s promise to Black people?

It is strange to gaze upon America’s pathological racism from Ghana. It is no less disturbing to behold, but it also makes me feel that we, Africans in America suffer a profound disadvantage in that, unlike our counterparts here or in other majority Black countries, we do not have our own society free from the idiocy and machinations of others who historically and presently have succeeded in maximizing our subordination. I am not suggesting that these ostensibly Black countries are panaceas, but they are places where in many respects we are (or believe ourselves to be) the stewards of our local destinies, which is different from the malaise of African Americans and other Diasporan Africans who are the subjects of often indifferent and frequently hostile states and institutions.

The hyper exploitation of enslavement was compounded by the evisceration of African humanity, and as such, provided a pretext for the legal mandates which enshrined Black oppression for the next century. And while that legal mandate was revised, wherein explicit acknowledgement of racial subordination as a state mandate was omitted, the damage had been done. The racialization of poverty and opportunity, the social psychology of white supremacy, the massive cultural apparatus designed to achieve what Carter G. Woodson called mis-education and Jacob H. Carruthers called de-education were sufficient to ensure that Blacks in the U.S. would remain on the margins of society–their hopes buoyed by the select few whose success became the stuff of “pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps” legends–an implicit condemnation of all those unable to overcome the weight of history and the burden of structural racism. Those others who refused to dream, the denizens of America’s declining urban centers in the late 20th Century, were ushered into the burgeoning prison industry, itself the heir to the fallen legacy of America’s great industrial economy. This was America’s assurance that it had a special place for Black people, the same place that it held in reserve for us in 1619: the dungeons of captivity, the expanding frontier of an ever-evolving hyper-exploitation, and life behind the veil of racialized contempt.

This puts before us a troubling malaise, one whose analysis is easier by far than its resolution. Some have argued that we should abscond to distant shores, that a more fulfilling life awaits us in Ghana or elsewhere on the African continent. I do not doubt that this may be true for a small minority, but this is not scalable as a solution to the structural racism faced by the masses of Africans in the U.S., to say nothing of the impact of global capitalism on the Black masses the world over, where the avarice of a few is afforded by the marginalization of the many. Thus one arrives on that distant shore beyond the horizon, only to find the flag of greed and corruption waving resplendent.

Others have advocated that our redemption lies in the voting booth, that a new era of Black electoral participation will lead the path to our redemption. This may be an efficacious strategy in some respects, but it ignores the lingering challenges that we face in cities and states where we are a numeric minority, and it does not capture the reality that the effectiveness of any form of governance in communities that have been wracked by economic decline will require degrees of remediation beyond simply electing a preferred candidate. As we are finding with the election of left-leaning candidates in countries in the throws of neoliberalism, governing in the midst of economic crisis can easily result in a political establishment which both teeters on the brink of illegitimacy and whose policy prescriptions reifies that which we see in many global cities—that local economic development is reliant on capital flows from international banks and multinational corporations–thus even progressive, grassroots leadership will remain tethered and thus constrained by the global economy, likely resulting in diminished hopes for the masses and the inverse—profitability–for the centers of economic power.

I think that the solution to these challenges begins with us working backwards from the present reality in all of its starkness and devising paths which are logical based on these undeniable features.

  1. The United States is a society where racial inequality is a historic reality. There is no evidence which refutes Derrick Bell’s thesis that “racism is permanent and indestructible”, therefor any vision of the future of Africans in America must take into account the ever-present specter of racism and its irrepressible need to visit misery upon our lives. This means that racism is not within the exclusive purview of some historic white community, an inheritance which will be shed by some new generation. Rather that American racism is inextricable, echoing KRS One’s contention that “You can’t have justice on stolen land.”, a truth that has not and will not be invalidated via the passage of time.
  2. The United States is a society whose processes of governance reveal one of the fatal imperfections of modern democracy. In the balance of power between the will of its citizens and the desires of its major economic institutions, capital rules. This is why many years ago W.E.B. Du Bois called for Industrial Democracy, that in a truly democratic society no process should exist beyond the assent of the people, that the rule of the people should be absolute both with regards to policy and the economy. In the U.S. we have seen the reduction of the power of the people and the enlargement of the force of capital on the political apparatus. This trend has only intensified rather than lessened with time.
  3. The economic system of the U.S., the vaunted prosperity that became the beacon of hope for people around the world is hobbled by its basic unsustainability—that is, America’s economy is based on a level of resource consumption that is both unsustainable and dangerous with regards to its impact on global warming, its despoiling of ecosystems, its depletion of water resources, and its energy consumption. The America that Black people and others have been clamoring to be included in is a ghost, a promise that can never be kept due to the finitude the Earth’s resources.

These three issues create a fundamentally different starting point for us to imagine our collective future as African people in the U.S. Moreover, they engender a conversation that requires that we fundamentally rethink our notions of economic development, our faith in certain institutions, or our belief in a redemptive future for the U.S. that finally and utterly eschews the transgressions of its past and present. This starting point compels us to ask a number of questions. What are we prepared to do for ourselves to insure our collective survival and success wherever we find ourselves? What form of economic development will offer, as Dr. Anderson Thompson says, the greatest good for the greatest number” of our people? Where should we cast our lot and how will we forge community there? What are we willing to do to mitigate the corrosive impact that many of America’s dominant institutions has had on our lives—the criminal justice system, mass-media, schools which excel at mis-education and de-education, the profit-driven health care industry, and so forth? What does our history in the U.S. reveal to us about the breadth of possibility when faced with a recalcitrant and violent system? How, for instance, did Africans in the late 19th or early 20th Centuries respond to the malaise before them? How might we learn from their successes and ameliorate their shortcomings? Ultimately, what do we want for the future of Black people, and what are we willing to do to achieve it?

If we fail to grapple with these questions, we consign ourselves to America’s designs for us, which is far far less than what we deserve.

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