|Photo by Richard Reilly|
Say what you will about our racially-divided, culturally-backwards, pro-police city there’s one distinction where St. Louis has become the absolute best: Protesting. No other region has been more resilient, more diverse in age and race, more spiritual, determined, persistent or more braver than ours. The level of creativity, organizing and deciding where, when and how to protest has captured the world’s attention and exposed the deep, deep layers of systematized racism in a major metropolitan area. History will record St. Louis as the 21st Century version of Selma Alabama in terms of civil unrest and push-back against non-violent demonstrations against unwarranted police aggression.
But then what? Where will this audacious movement take us?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the protesters. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do: Protest. People, mostly young people, have put their safety, their jobs and their lives on the line to confront and expose injustices. Young, progressive politicians, religious leaders and business-owners have stepped to do their part as well. They’ve made it abundantly clear that this city will not be cowered by police acts of oppression or intimidation. Yet, it can’t be denied that the rest of us have not done our part.
But then what? Where will this audacious movement take us?
In one of my recent commentaries, I quoted Mayor Lyda Krewson who defined St. Louis’ current climate as one impacted by “institutionalized racism.” I agree with that definition but we must honestly unpack our collective culpability in enabling and abiding the “systems” that have deemed black lives expendable and worthless.
Brace yourself. I’m not going to detail our region’s long history of economic, housing, criminal justice or educational disparities along racial lines. That’s well documented. I’m going to discuss how we, black folk have failed our young people; how we, black folk, need to develop plans to combat institutionalized racism in our region; how we, black folk, need to create our own, alternative systems to finally, finally uplift and protect our young people. I'm writing about how we can ensure that they can transform the historic societal nightmare into the ballyhooed “American Dream.”
At some point in time, black people, and those who love us, must confront the fact that this system was not created for our benefit. It is a greedy, class-based, racially-tilted structure designed for the advantage of mostly wealthy, mostly white men. The civil rights movement was mainly about racial equality but there's still much to do in addressing racial equity. Many of us settled. We allowed ourselves to believe that integration and access to politics, being allowed to move into white neighborhoods, work for white-owned companies and, eventually, elect a black president would solve our collective ills. We were wrong.
Back in the late 1960s, when laws outlawed overt segregation, many of us abandoned traditional black neighborhoods for better opportunities elsewhere. Some celebrated upward mobility while turning blind eyes to those left behind. We willingly turned our young people over to the employment, educational, social welfare and criminal justice “systems.”
At some point in time, black people, and those who love us, must confront the fact that this system was not created for our benefit.
Let’s be honest, poverty, which nurtures and breeds crime, is disproportionate in black neighborhoods. America, which doesn’t have the capacity or compassion to tackle generational, race-based poverty has opted for the detrimental preschool-to-prison pipeline as its solution. Because of this moral deficit, our children are adrift. Many are caught up in the dangerous game of survival by any means necessary. All must fight the battles of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and the stinging legacy of slavery and racial oppression.
So, again, what’s the plan after the protests?
Krewson, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and many other media outlets point to “solutions” outlined in the Department of Justice’s report and the report compiled by the “Forward Through Ferguson” Commission after the 2014 police shooting of Mike Brown. There’s nothing wrong with these assessments. Both stress systematic injustices, both address police reform and one highlights job opportunities inherent in the corporate world. What they don’t do, perhaps can’t do, is detail how black people can “do-for-self,” sustain themselves and their neighborhoods and create environments where they control wealth, politics and police interaction with the targeted populace.
Herein is where liberal ideologies collude with far right-wing fears. You see, oodles and oodles of whites (both conservative and liberal) believe blacks should be treated fairly; that unarmed blacks are killed disproportionately by police and that blacks have received a bum deal in this society. However, some balk at the idea of truly “empowering” black people by giving them the same resources historically gifted to whites. Most won’t admit it, but many-and public opinion polls back this up-believe that if blacks “get something” it will be at the expense of whites. They believe that investing in real “black power” is the antithesis of Dr. King’s "dream" where all races reach the proverbial “mountaintop” together.
However, some balk at the idea of truly “empowering” black people by giving them the same resources historically gifted to whites.
It is in this radical, revolutionary arena where black leaders and those who truly empathize with the plight of black people must step up. It is here where the lessons of Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X must be mainstreamed and adapted into a modern-day game plan for social, educational and economic progress. What they preached back in the day-land-ownership, economic independence and growing our own food-is just as pertinent today.
Let us take a candid look at black communities here and around the country. For centuries, every ethnicity (accept black people)-Jews, Germans, Koreans and Middle-Easterners-have capitalized off the wealth of black neighborhoods. To be clear, I’m not criticizing people who were smart enough to decipher how, why and when black people spend their money. In fact, I am in awe of the numerous gas stations and convenience stores operated by Muslims in the ‘hood. They have studied us. Walk into any of these operations and you’ll find they sell the “bling,” the fast, fatty foods, the cell phone services and other commodities unique to the black consumer base. This maxim also applies to the myriad of fast food restaurants, pay-day lending and check-cashing operations owned and operated by non-blacks in black neighborhoods.
I am in awe of the numerous gas stations and convenience stores operated by Muslims in the ‘hood.
In my 30-plus years of researching, writing and talking publicly about black people and our many, many societal woes, I’ve concluded that the only way to end the trajectory of “victimhood,” is to do-for-self and build “systems” that we control. This is why I, along with the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC), created the Sweet Potato Project. Since 2012, we’ve provided at-risk youth (16-21) jobs where they learn how to grow produce on vacant and community lots. We teach them marketing, branding, sales, product development and how “supply & demand” dynamics work inside and outside their neighborhoods.
Our vision is that of a large collective of North St. Louis land-owners growing, packaging and distributing fresh food and food products together. This, I maintain, is a practical, common-sense approach to addressing unemployment, food deserts and nutritional needs and community redevelopment.
How? Well, imagine young, urban youth trained to be a part of the burgeoning locally-grown food movement? Envision them owning vacant properties, growing food and making money off their yields. What may happen if their parents, siblings, and peers plant and grow together? Well, they will be empowered and accountable for the safety and stability of their neighborhoods. Furthermore, imagine the all-around impact of restaurants, bakeries, grocers, schools, hospitals, public institutions and individual consumers all buying food and food products from this collective. We will then have a food-based economic engine in North St. Louis designed to fuel sustainable entrepreneurism, jobs, and small business growth.
Please don’t misunderstand or assume that I’m offering an all-out panacea for the ills that impact poor black people. I’m not naïve. However, I do believe it’s a viable plan. It’s one way to introduce do-for-self economics and entrepreneurism into black communities. The goal is for other entities to build off the template. I recently read about a housing initiative in Detroit where Cass Community Social Services are building 250-to-400-square-feet “tiny homes.” At building costs ranging from $40,000-to-$50,000 each, low income people rent-to-own homes in seven years or less.
This may be a sensitive subject for some. But I’ve been sharing this message since 2015 when I spoke at the Conference for Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C. There an audience member asked “what can whites do” to better the conditions of African Americans? My suggestion was/is: “Bet on and invest in Black. Look for ways to socially and economically empower black people where they live.”
Let’s give the Black Lives Matters group and other bodacious young protesters another place to practice their resiliency, creativity and resolve. Imagine a housing program like this added to a land-ownership, food-growing initiative in St. Louis. Those 21-year-olds or older, who own land, grow food and make money will have the additional opportunity to build off their accumulated wealth in their own neighborhoods. With city resources and institutional support, they can use their combined collateral to open restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, nightclubs and alternative educational institutions. Their collective economic influence can be used to finance the campaigns of progressive, political candidates, develop private security operations and demand police give them the same attention and respect afforded more tonier areas.
Let’s give the Black Lives Matters group and other bodacious young protesters another place to practice their resiliency, creativity and resolve.
This has been the clarion call of the Sweet Potato Project for six years. Fortunately, we’re not alone. We’re working with other like-minded nonprofits who are similarly intent on using food to empower poor people. What’s missing is vision, powerful alliances and partnerships and, frankly, the involvement of black people who believe in the potential of ourselves and our young people.
In a recent commentary, I chastised the Post-Dispatch for insisting protesters have “a plan.” In a city tethered to the teat of uber-rich developers and void of urban solutions, I challenged the newspaper to examine its role in codifying the status quo.
Today, in all sincerity, I challenge black leaders, black people and those loyal to our cause to step up. For once, let us commit to forging a progressive, all-encompassing path forward after the tumultuous protests.
Sylvester Brown Jr. is a writer, community activist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, a program that seeks to empower low-income youth and adults through land-ownership and urban agriculture.