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Watching republican led legislatures all over the country advocate and pass harsh new voting restrictions clearly designed to disenfranchise and marginalize the African American vote has brought up personal feelings of dismay and frustration. But the subsequent abject silence on this issue from most notable African American elites has left me feeling puzzled and frustrated even more. Out of that frustration came three questions I’d like to explore and attempt to answer:
1. What happened to the solidarity and sense of duty to each other that made the success of the civil rights movement possible?
2. Why aren’t today’s African Americans with wealth, celebrity, and power as visible and outspoken as African American’s with similar standings were in the 1960’s?
3. What is the biggest issue in 21st century America that directly threatens the gains won by civil rights activist in the 1960’s?
Before we can begin to answer any of those questions we have to define what contemporary Americans consider activism to be. In the 1960’s social activism meant marches, protest, attending lectures and speeches, making personal sacrifices for the greater good, rallies, lobbing friends, neighbors, and family members who may not understand your position or why that particular issue is important, and holding elected officials accountable to the people who elected them.
Taking part in the political process now means being involved in politically biased or partisan media, and/or shouting down friends on social media (like facebook or twitter), and signing online petitions. That is one of the biggest changes in how we participate as citizens in politics. I have even heard some people say they only watch television shows or movies with black people in the cast… as if that does anything to help minority communities. If that is the extent of your activism then you are most definitely wasting your time.
The biggest change in civil rights and how African Americans take part in it and the lack of visibility or urgency in it can not be blamed on laziness, apathy, or resting on the gains already won in the 1960’s. Of course all of that does play a part but it’s a very small part. A lot of it has to do with the social separation between African American’s with wealth or celebrity from everyday working class, middle class, and poor African Americans. Another huge factor has to do with the changes in traditional African American churches. First let me explain the part about African American churches, and I’ll come back to the social separation idea afterward.
African American churches were at the center of the civil rights movement. It’s where MLK and others met to plan rallies, share information, inspire activism, and it was also a place where African Americans felt safe. That has all disappeared from today’s African American churches. Today’s mega church’s seem more concerned with money, power, and a place to network. Once the church was removed from the movement there was nothing there to take its place. A lot of people don’t know this but one of the main reasons African American churches are a lot less politically active has to do with money. In 2001 President George Bush created a new government organization called “The White House Office Of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives”. He created this office to give government grants to churches and religious organizations. Churches were already tax exempt but the 1st amendment to the US Constitution says “government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, more commonly known as “separation of church and state”. So because of this constitutional amendment churches were excluded from getting government grants. President Bush and some really smart lawyers came up with a way to give grant money to churches. All the churches had to do is incorporate themselves as a non profit organization and change their church name if it was something overtly religious that could identify what type of religion the church practices. For example, if the church name is “Jesus Is Love Tabernacle” they would have to remove “Jesus” and change it to something like “Love and Worship Tabernacle”. The same pastors and religious folk that were so appalled at prayer being removed from schools jumped at the chance to change their church name to get government grants… how hypocritical is that? But I digress… After they do the name change that church is now eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of government grants (keep in mind that grants do not have to be paid back aka free money). To stay in compliance and keep their government grants they have a lot more rules to follow. That church can not be involved with politics or back any political candidate. So no church rallies for civil rights, and no telling your congregation which candidate will help the community the most. But with all that money you can build a huge mega church, buy nice buses with the pastor’s face on the side, employ a full time staff and compensate them nicely (most of the time it’s the pastors family), and the pastor’s salary can reach baller levels. I don’t want to make it all sound bad because some of these churches are doing good things with the money. They provide services for the community like free daycare, feeding the homeless, family and marriage counseling, pay medical bills and buy prescriptions for those who are sick and in need etc. But all of this new grant money has crippled the traditional black church’s involvement in civil rights. If not at church, where is the base for civil rights activists? This is a major problem that has not been addressed.
This is the other issue that needs to be dealt with. African American celebrities and those with wealth or political power aren’t subjected to the same treatment as poor and middle class African Americans. During the civil rights movement all African Americans were subjected to Jim Crow and separate but equal. Black performers and entertainers could not stay in the hotels they performed in. Couldn’t eat at the restaurants that their fellow white entertainers ate in. This created a solidarity among all African Americans. Performers like Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammad Ali, etc championed the fight for civil rights because they had a personal steak in it in addition to doing it just because it was the right thing to do. They were all willing to put their carers on the line to help all Blacks. Today it’s hard to find true civil rights activist among Black entertainers and Blacks with wealth such as Jay Z, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Sean Combs (P. Diddy), Bob Johnson, Bishop TD Jakes and even President Obama. The wealth and power these people have gained totally insulates them from the discrimination, pains, and issues felt by middle class, poor, and impoverished African Americans. Jay Z doesn’t get stopped and frisked every time he leaves his lavish penthouse apartment in New York. Oprah doesn’t have to worry about her polling location being removed just because she lives in a district that’s predominately African American. P Diddy doesn’t have to worry about his voting rights being revoked because of a petty drug charge he plead guilty to when he was 15 years old. Tyler Perry doesn’t have to worry about predatory lenders that target his neighborhood because it’s inhabited by poor African Americans who can not get traditional loans from traditional banks or credit unions. Bishop TD Jakes isn’t effected by republicans harsh and brutal cuts to social programs like medicaid, wic, social security, disability, food stamps, head-start, planned parenthood, etc. Bob Johnson doesn’t have to worry about his children not being able to attend college because government grants have dried up.
All of the people I named have huge visibility and enormous resources which they could use to effect change and improve the lives of all minorities while making our finical, educational, and criminal justice systems treat all citizens equally. Instead of doing this they have chosen to enrich themselves with more power and more wealth. I hate to point specific people out because there are thousands just like them who I haven’t named. I would also like to acknowledge that these people have donated to charities and are good well-meaning people for the most part. But they have a greater responsibility to the people that made their wealth and power possible. What if Harry Belafonte or Muhammad Ali hadn’t fought for civil rights? The lush charmed lives of Oprah and Jay Z wouldn’t be possible. So in turn they should do the same for those who are currently being victimized by racial intolerance and inequality. What good is making it to the “top” if you don’t reach back and pull your brother up with you? For rappers like Jay Z and Lil Wayne it’s not enough to just rap about the harsh conditions of the inner city and make people aware of the inequality in our justice system. Hip Hop has done an amazing job of that over the years (which was no small feat). But if you continue to rap about inner city problems, gain enormous wealth from it and not involve yourself in creating a movement to change it, then you’ve turned one of the most sui generis and innovative art forms ever created into egregious exploitation.
I know my critique of the African American elite is a bit harsh, but I can’t assign 100% of the blame on them. We as a whole have allowed them to behave that way. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating success or acknowledging those with special abilities. But when all you do is congratulate and celebrate without demanding something in return you are giving them permission to obtain more wealth and power at your expense. Tyler Perry, TD Jakes, and Jay Z owe a huge part of their success to the poor and working class African Americans who support them. There are people who live far below the poverty line who will scrape up a few dollars to see Tyler Perry’s latest movie, or attend one of TD Jakes conferences, or buy Jay Z’s newest album. That fact alone should be enough to move them and make them want to be more vocal. Building a bigger super mega church doesn’t help our community. Buying a basketball team doesn’t help our community. Buying a private island doesn’t help our community, and now we have this new phenomenon where anyone who questions the elite are shunned and labeled “haters”. Somehow our entertainers and those of us who support them have lost our way. We’ve lost the will to fight. We’ve accepted the status quo and have become complacent or (in my case) cynical. Yes I’ll admit I have become a bit cynical. When the problems are so huge and the solution seems so very apparent it drives me crazy to see those with unlimited resources doing nothing.
How can we remind these people of their responsibility? How can we show the elite they still have a steak in civil rights? Obviously empathy and “doing the right thing” aren’t viable motivations anymore. Maybe we should play to their vanity and start praising any and all (no matter how small) charitable work they do, or anytime they call for criminal justice reform in an interview, or anytime they campaign for candidates who are pro civil rights, and ignore the trivial vapidness and superficial self importance of inconsequential celebrity gossip.
Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, President Kennedy, and all of the other great civil rights activists from the 1960’s would be astonished at the lack of diligence that has taken hold since their great gains at the height of the movement. Most notably the Supreme Court decision to strike down parts of the voting rights act earlier this year which led to a number of harsh new voting restrictions put in place by republican governors to disenfranchise the minority vote. I believe Martin Luther King would also be shocked and disappointed at the lack of support from the black community for marriage equality and gay rights. I say this with a great deal of confidence because one of MLK’s most trusted advisers was an out gay African American man named Bayard Rustin (who I just referenced at the beginning of this paragraph). A few of MLK’s other advisers tried to talk him into firing Bayard because of his sexuality and MLK would not do it. Without Bayard the historic march on Washington may not have happened. He was the top organizer for the event. I feel I have to acknowledge that the black community is moving in the right direction on this issue. The NAACP publicly announced support for gay marriage last year sometime right after President Obama announced his support. So there is progress and hope on this issue…. but hope enough to assuage my cynicism?… the jury is still out on that one.
2013 CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUES TO ADDRESS:
END STOP AND FRISK!
END RACIAL PROFILING!
RESTORE THE ORIGINAL VOTING RIGHTS ACT!
GET RID OF ALL “STAND YOUR GROUND” LAWS!
REFORM THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM!
ALLOW ALL CITIZENS TO VOTE, EVEN THOSE WITH A FELONY!
END THE COSTLY INEFFECTIVE WAR ON DRUGS!
CLOSE ALL PRIVATE PRISONS
ENACT A MORATORIUM ON BUILDING NEW PRISONS
LEGALIZE GAY MARRIAGE IN ALL 50 STATES!
MAKE THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT SUCCESSFUL!
Read “The New Jim Crow” by: Michelle Alexander (if you can’t find or afford a copy please let me know and I will purchase one and send it to you. It’s a must read for anyone who cares about civil rights and how mass incarceration became the solution for dealing with African American men.)