Monday, August 17, 2015

Why We Can’t Wait

Cowardice asks the question - is it safe?
Expediency asks the question - is it politic?
Vanity asks the question - is it popular?
But conscience asks the question - is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position
that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.
-      Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



       Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 book, “Why We Can’t Wait” served as a blunt exploration of the forces behind the Civil Rights Movement of that time. King specifically saw 1963 as a landmark year of the movement and as the beginning of America's "Negro Revolution.” Now, some 50 years since its publication, America find itself in the throngs of another, more updated black revolution.
          It’s been a bit more than a year since the shooting death of 18-year-old Mike Brown. The tragic event exposed racial and economic injustices that have been tolerated too long in this region and throughout the country. It’s been more than a year and I am just as proud of the demonstrators today as I was in 2014.


        Some will question this with examples of violence, looting or black-on-black crime. In response, I say you’ve been manipulated by the media, bamboozled by the status quo and hoodwinked by propagandists. Instead of hearing the warranted cries of thousands, you’ve latched onto the few examples that validate your conditioned biases and justify your silence.

Instead of hearing the warranted cries of thousands, you’ve latched onto the few examples that validate your conditioned biases and justify your silence.

We owe a resounding “thank you” to the defiant, resilient and creative protesters for pulling the stained sheet of racial insolence off a region where terrorizing and profiting off the poor is the norm. Now, the world has seen the deeply embedded economic, societal and judicial daggers that have punctured the souls of black people.
   The protesters are doing their part in instigating significant change in the St. Louis metropolitan area. They have gone to jail; been maligned and ridiculed, targeted and painted as radicals by an embarrassed yet vengeful police force. It is now on us-the caring and connected-to make sure their sacrifices are not in vain.
           I keep hearing that we’re making “progress” on issues unearthed by Mike Brown’s death. I’ve read of efforts to consolidate police departments, open more charter schools and limit the amount of money greedy municipalities can collect off poor people. These are the result of many well-meaning people but, can we really call it “progress” when some of these endeavors are attached to old, stodgy agendas like merging the city and county and privatizing public schools? Is it “progress” if the young demonstrators have not been consulted nor or involved in the change promised? 
Is it progress when the “Black Lives Matter” mantra has been overruled with the snobbish “All lives matter” retort? An August 6 Post-Dispatch editorial underscores the protester's theme: “To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy.”

To be black in the St. Louis region means that you are more than three times as likely as your white neighbors to live in poverty, to be unemployed, to have less education, to die earlier and to see your child die in infancy.”

          The editorial, based on a recent study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, stressed that our region ranks horribly high in categories such as “black-to-white poverty, black-to-white unemployment and black-to-white infant mortality.” Bad housing, inadequate health care and poor access to quality food are all part of the equation, the editorial stressed. However, it also noted that the chief cause of these disparities is “systemic racism…a calculated effort over generations by St. Louis’ white majority to cut off access to opportunity for African-Americans.”
To be clear, there are sincere, well-meaning people-black, white and other-doing their damnedest to address the concerns unveiled in the DOJ’s report on the region. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if their ideas will eradicate the real, ugly cancer that’s metastasized in the bones of our region. Can they really change the segregated mindset that has rendered black lives meaningless? Can they eliminate systematic racism?

I can’t help but wonder if their ideas will eradicate the ugly cancer that’s metastasized in the bones of our region. 

          Maybe it’s because I’m an old dude. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been writing about racism, poverty, police brutality and protest movements for almost 30 years.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this movie before and we always attempt to wrap up these volatile incidents with promises of change. Whatever the motivation, I’m left with the conclusion that we can’t wait for the system to fix itself, we have to do for self.  
        Although it should be everyone’s call to help clean up St. Louis’ mess, it is the responsibility of black people to protect and provide for their children. Our young did not create the chaos in our streets. They had no control over a system of race-based mass incarceration that’s seeded a culture of crime in low-income neighborhoods. They weren’t around in the late 1960's when those who could escape areas historically occupied by blacks, left to seek opportunities promised by civil rights legislation. They did not create a society that has spent more money to lock up black kids than provide them with decent education. They had no part in crafting a world where a career of selling drugs seems more feasible than going to college or starting legitimate businesses.
The protesters today are the modern day reflection of a proud, resilient and ever-determined legacy of true justice and equality. It wasn’t just black people involved back in the day nor should it be that way today. However, just as it was during the turn of the century, black people must lead; WE must decide and define the agenda and outcomes.

As it was during the turn of the century, black people must lead; WE must define the agenda and outcomes.

        If we are honest we will admit that Jews, East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians or any other ethnicity does not rely on American systems (educational, economic or societal) to protect, educate or employ their youth. They create or subscribe to alternative systems that ensure their cultures and histories are intertwined with their economic and educational values. Their children, relatives and friends work in their businesses; they buy from one another and most live in the same neighborhoods.
        Building a billion dollar football stadium, investing in already rich developers or privatizing public education with taxpayer’s money won’t change the negative trajectory of poor, black neighborhoods. “Empowerment” should be the litmus test of any reform effort. We should always ask if new ideas or proposals really empower black people to make the changes necessary in their neighborhoods.

Building a billion dollar football stadium, investing in already rich developers or privatizing public education with taxpayer’s money won’t change the negative trajectory of poor, black neighborhoods.

        Of course, I speak from my own interest, research and efforts. I am the director of the Sweet Potato Project. Our mission is to capitalize off the national food movement to empower people and communities. For the past four years we’ve taught kids (ages 16-to 21) to plant produce on vacant city lots and how to turn their harvest into products that they sell for sustenance. But, the more empowering goal is to get blacks to secure some of the 8,000 + vacant lots in the city alone; grow food, make products and convince grocers, restaurants, public institutions and consumers to support a North St. Louis food hub.


The more empowering goal is to get blacks to secure some of the 8,000 + vacant lots; grow food, make products and convince grocers, restaurants, public institutions and consumers to support a North St. Louis food hub.

        This is how you give people a vested interest in reclaiming and revitalizing neighborhoods. This is how you create immediate jobs and stimulate food-related small business growth like bakeries, coffee shops, fresh food grocers and trucking companies in long-neglected neighborhoods. 
        This is not the only way but it’s a powerful way to start connecting influential people, politicians, corporations and a diverse collective that sincerely believes the best way to save black neighborhoods is to empower black people.
         Again, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t believe we have the luxury of relying on broken systems or those who contributed to the brokenness. We-the caring and connected-must insist that change come from inside out, not the other way around.  Whites who actually know black people; who aren’t afraid of black neighborhoods; who really believe that the huge man-made disparities have rendered black lives meaningless; who understand that culture and ownership are important parts of holistic change can’t wait any longer.

I don’t believe we have the luxury of relying on broken systems or those who contributed to the brokenness. We-the caring and connected-must insist that change come from inside out, not the other way around.  

Back in his day, Dr. King warned that it was not the time to be cowardly; political, popular or polite. It was the time to be “right.” That mandate has not changed. The young protesters have thrown down the gauntlet of resistance and are demanding what’s “right.” We mustn’t miss the grand opportunity the victims of our apathy have given us. Now is the time to honor and build upon their courage.

        This is our test. This is our moment.  This is why we cannot wait.