Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ben Carson (Gulp) Spoke the Truth…

I have a feeling I’m going to regret writing this but, I actually agree with a statement retired neurosurgeon and current GOP candidate for president, Ben Carson, made in late September.  While speaking to a small group of black leaders and activists, Carson said blacks can leverage more power through their bank accounts than by putting their “fist in the air.”

Let’s be clear, I’m no Carson supporter. As Goldie Taylor with the Daily Beast noted, I’m among that group of blacks who find the Republican “brand” and many of its platforms “toxic” and “antagonistic.” Besides, the brilliant surgeon has said quite a few not-so-brilliant things like comparing Obamacare to slavery; saying Jews with guns could have prevented the Holocaust and Muslims should be disqualified from seeking the presidency. Pretty wacky stuff, however, when it comes to the empowerment of black people, Carson’s on point.  No matter what happens in politics, through legislation or the courageous acts of diverse, engaged and benevolent people, its incumbent upon black folk to adopt and pursue a “do-for-self” agenda for the survival and positive advancement of our young, our neighborhoods and our futures.
Carson was right when he told black leaders; “Jewish America understands it. Korean America understands it. Black America, if they could understand it, they could blow everybody else out of the water.”
The “IT” is economic empowerment and no one can gift that to black people. We have to understand-like every other hyphenated American group-Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc., that we must build our own systems within established systems for our collective survival. Other ethnicities, hesitant to solely rely on government structures, build and support their own educational, business and political “systems.” They make sure that their culture, history and unique interests are intertwined with their businesses, politics and children’s education. They work to ensure self-reliance and economic, social and religious independence.
From the days of slavery, throughout the Jim Crow era and into early 1970s, blacks had no choice but challenge a system that purposely excluded them. Integration and equality was the rallying cry for “freedom.” Prior to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, however, blacks had no choice but do-for-self. As a result, they established their own educational systems, political self-interest groups and businesses within the communities where they were legally or forcefully restricted. Unfortunately, when “opportunity” was defined by the privilege to live in white neighborhoods, attend white schools or work for white-owned businesses, many blacks abandoned their neighborhoods and the businesses that sustained and protected them for decades.
Back in August, in preparation for a public library discussion on “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World,” I wrote an essay titled Economic Justice: The Missing Piece in Achieving RacialJustice.” The gist of the piece was to show how so-called remedies for blacks oftentimes served systems created to benefit whites; School districts profited from busing poor, black city kids to white suburban schools; Affirmative Action benefits mostly white women; entitlements and food stamps created new revenue streams for major white-owned grocers and retailers and on and on.
We cannot blame ourselves for having to fight systems established on the artificial premise of white superiority but, at some point, we have to realize the damage in solely relying on them to propel our collective interests. One of the biggest tragedies of Obama’s legacy is that black leaders failed to dissect his initiatives, develop and articulate an agenda of self-sufficiency backed by federal assistance. I know it may sound hypocritical but the operative words are “backed” or supported; efforts that lead to self-sufficient black communities that are not solely reliant on government support.
For example, the program I co-founded in 2012, the Sweet Potato Project, was inspired in part by a federal proposal. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the $400million Healthy Food Financing Initiative, aimed at eliminating “food deserts” and enticing food retailers into business partnerships with under-served urban and rural communities. Back then, as today, I see the “locally-grown food” movement as a viable way to empower low-income communities for the long term. We provide “at-risk” teens with a summer job to grow food on vacant lots. We teach them how to package, market and sell produce and food products. 
Why not expand the concept? We all eat, right? Why not get vacant land into the hands of the impoverished and have them grow healthy food that can be purchased by major grocers? Why not have North St. Louis landowners grow food that can be sold at farmers markets and turned into a product line of quality food products that any and everyone can purchase? It’s basic, sustainable; good for troubled neighborhoods and can spin off into dozens of other housing and business ventures.

 Carson insists that he’s not trying to get rid of “safety net programs” but create environments where entitlement programs won’t be needed. Creating mechanisms that help people rise out of states of “dependency” is the goal, the good doctor maintains. It's not that I doubt his motives; it’s that I don’t trust his affiliation with a Party known for its stubborn reliance on negative stereotypes to dismantle such programs.  
Maybe we have traveled a path outside our control to get to this point, but the fact remains that we have turned our neighborhoods and our children over to broken systems-educational, political and economic-that were not designed for our collective uplift. Challenge injustice-yes; Raise your fists; raise your voices-yes! But we must also raise our awareness to match modern day realities. Most whites believe that we’ve overcome racism and as a recent poll indicated, the majority believes they are the victims of discrimination.   
There will be no political knight in shining armor; there will be no groundswell of liberal “saviors” who will carve out a path of self-sufficiency for black people. In a way, we have to go back to go forward. We have to re-adopt the mindset of “do-for-self” with as much help as possible. It’s not radical or revolutionary. As Carson reminded us; it’s what every other ethnicity deems necessary. 

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and current director of the Sweet Potato Project, a St. Louis initiative that teaches entrepreneurial skills to urban youth.    

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