Desegregation, Inclusion, Diversity, Quotas, Mixing of the Races or Genocide of the Black Race?
This question has taken on particular relevance as I’ve been following the media coverage and governmental response to the coronavirus—or COVID-19 as it is commonly called. Despite the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color, largely because of the underlying conditions of poverty and inadequate health care, the overwhelming number of faces in key decision-making positions are white and wealthy. These elites are not ‘diversity’ experts equipped to speak for nonwhite groups. They cannot appreciate the social distancing challenges low-income people of color have to contend with to protect themselves against exposure. They cannot understand the fear and pain caused by higher rates of infection, sickness and death and the inability to pay for it all. After literally generations of civil rights activism, COVID-19 has stripped bare the institutional racism that still riddles American life.
The lives of the poor and people of color have never received due attention from the media or our government… Not during their lives, nor even after their deaths. What white people in this country don’t comprehend is the accumulated damage that hundreds of years of non-stop prejudice and oppression have inflicted on populations of color. Those of us of African descent are from stock who were enslaved and forcibly brought to this continent, stripped of their identities, beaten, the women raped and the families split up. Upon emancipation, under Jim Crow laws, our ancestors were promptly segregated, hounded and sometimes lynched. Finally, in the modern era, we have been subjected to a discrimination in education, employment, income and opportunity that continues up to this day. We carry this legacy in every fiber of our beings in every moment of lives. And even today, in 2020, half a century after the civil rights movement, still must deal with the omnipresent threat of being the next Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery. We’re sick of it, we want it to end. But not for one second does it stop.
As a young boy, I recall my mother’s concern about her children not going south. Moreover, she distinctly said that someone in our family was lynched many years ago in Mississippi. She did not supply the details, but it left such an impression on me as a child that for years I had no intention of visiting the South. Moreover, whenever I met African Americans or whites from southern states, I immediately watched their behaviors and listened carefully to their language for racism and the impact of those racist behaviors on African American, southern-raised ‘apologists’. As a youth, I observed that the local governmental agencies and the school system always recruited blacks (or so-called “Negroes”) from the South for critical positions. When I inquired about why this was done, I was told it was because they were in high concentration at black colleges and were equipped (trained) to work in Omaha.
This whole picture constitutes a litmus test of where we are at as African Americans. For some of us, our perspective will depend on how integrated we are into various public and private institutions. Fast forward to 2020. As someone who has a considerable background in and knowledge of race and the historical factors affecting African Americans and people of color, it’s become apparent that we are experiencing the worst of times. Not to say that other times were better—but the sad reality is that we are sitting in a frying pan and unaware that, like the proverbial frog, we are being cooked.
Many of us suffer from what I call ‘Negro amnesia’—a condition in which the cognitive recognition of one’s group and their particular history is impaired. When I examine black faces in high places, the condition is clearly noticeable. They have been brainwashed of their group identity and are actually helping impede the acquisition of civil and human rights for the mass of African Americans.
Some weeks ago, I came across an editorial whose headline inferred that the election of Barack Obama was largely symbolic and a waste of time. As someone who’d twice voted for President Obama, I found the viewpoint offensive if not insulting. Millions of African Americans like myself had voted for the first African American President and overwhelmingly supported him because of his commitment to integration, diversity and Affirmative Action for people of color. But as I actually read the article, I found the authors’ arguments irrefutable. The editorial writers, Cornell West and Tavis Smiley, took Obama to task for his unwavering allegiance to Wall Street bankers, but lackadaisical efforts to end poverty and lift up African Americans.
This tension between whether government serves the ‘haves’ or the have-nots’ didn’t just arise with Obama. It has plagued America since its founding. When large corporations fail, business and government leaders fall all over themselves to bail out Wall Street from the public till. These same people though will often turn right around and hypocritically balk at spending public funds to aid the poor and oppressed and correct an injustice. Every American president seems to be faced with the choice of supporting the interests of Big Business or the needs of rank-and-file Americans. You can generally do one or the other, but rarely both.
As for President Obama, if we were to empirically measure whether incomes, employment and home ownership for African Americans increased under his administration, the answer would be ‘no’. Recent studies have indicated that due to the historic impact of slavery in the United States, Jim Crow laws, and countless acts of racial discrimination and injustice, it will take decades for African Americans to achieve economic parity with whites. This yawning economic divide has been compounded with the COVID-19 crisis, which could well push black people over the cliff of life.
Those being the stakes, here are three areas in which, by taking action, we would move the needle forward in this country for African Americans:
1. There must be reparation for the years of free labor that allowed too many whites to get rich off the backs of African Americans. Malcolm X was fond of saying that we worked from sunrise to sundown and never got a penny. As other academic experts at Georgetown University and elsewhere have documented, those trillions of dollars of ill-got gains can be traced to those slave owners and their descendants. We must begin to move that reparations conversation forward. It is far more than symbolic.
2. The University of Nebraska has established free tuition for families earning incomes under $60,000 a year. That’s a good beginning. However, what good is a stimulus check if it’s all going to pay off the overpriced loan shark? More direct public assistance like that of the University needs to occur, at every level.
3. We should establish safe places where racial and economic integration is mandated. For example, in a community that is 33 percent people of color, there should not be one publicly funded ‘whites-only space’ or a single person going to bed without adequate nutrition. This is particularly insulting when we are paying for white folks who have never had any significant contact with people of color whatsoever. COVID-19 might just be a transformational opportunity for these whites to engage people of color on what they need for survival and thriving.
As long, though, as whites are allowed to live in their own segregated world away from people of color, we will never eliminate racism. The walls must come down… The gates to their privileged neighborhoods flung open… And the conversation begin in earnest. Anything else is just ‘whistling Dixie” and, with pandemics like COVID-19, we will all pay for it, black and white alike.
A’Jamal Byndon is the Chair of the PRI board of directors and an adjunct professor at UNO.
This article is from the June 2020 edition of The Nebraska Report, a publication of Nebraskans for Peace.