The Need To Be ACTIVE (Or You Are Helping the Oppressors)
During the past year, I have encountered many peculiarities and anomalies affecting low-income communities of color. Taken as a whole, it is apparent we have the blind leading the blind. How is it, otherwise, that despite over 400 years of slavery and oppression in the United States we have so little to show for our efforts? For any demographic you look at (you pick—education, the criminal justice system, healthcare, housing, employment, whatever), it’s clear that too many are stuck on stupid. If you follow the data or keep your eyes on the prize, you would think something in the way of change should be forthcoming. But that’s not going to happen if the oppressor is playing the white shell game.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a first-ever real cultural humility training with law enforcement in my community. There were a few concepts and behaviors that struck me from that training. One, we need a lot more engagement with law-enforcement officials based upon a series of reports from ACLU Nebraska. The last two reports demonstrated there are historically too many traffic stops on people of color. Often, according the ACLU, those stops are driven by racist mindsets where the officers have not had to check their behaviors. As a board member of ACLU, I have come to see that with open record requests we can acquire data and information that has been hidden from the public view for far too long. We have access to the information we need to create change. But if we have such a wonderful, honest system here in the U.S., then why is there a disproportionate number of youth and adults of color serving excessive time in the Nebraska prison industrial complex? And why are many of the elite “Negroes” (so-called social justice advocates and sell-outs) wasting an inordinate amount of time in self-promotion dances, cocktail parties, and snuggling up to those who mean harm to our community and people. Legislatively, we moved to district elections to provide better representation for the oppressed. Yet if our district-elected officials are spending their time on trivial dance contests and attending rubber chicken dinners, who is minding the urgent work of aiding the oppressed when the community and our families are falling apart?
Case in point. There is plenty of debate about the construction of new buildings, the appointment of new positions, and—most of all—about the people (generally the wrong ones) acquiring these new shiny positions (oftentimes without any real accountability). When I meet professionals who are supposed to be doing the community’s work, there are three questions that I pose to them:
1. Who from the affected class or situations have you invited to your elite tables?
2. Are those meetings (or fake engagement sessions) diverse in terms of race and class?
3. What are your quality or data indicators that you are improving the plight of the oppressed?
As one can surmise, they are not prepared to answer any of those questions. Moreover, what invariably happens is they attempt to rephrase the questions or change the scope and tone of the discussion.
I have attended meetings in recent months where I was the only African American in the room—and they were talking about race. There were over 35 white folks at one meeting I was at that was focused on our community and people, and I was the only person of color there. Many years ago, at a leadership meeting at Catholic Charities, I found it shocking how Christian white liberals were throwing around the word “racists” at others when they themselves were smoking the self-same stuff. Look at the most progressive groups in the community and Nebraska and count the number of dark-skinned faces in high places. There is a common phrase that is often repeated by politically correct pundits that “There should be nothing about us without us”. Meanwhile, those who teach those lessons refuse to eat their own soup.
Margaret J. Wheatley in her classic book, Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations To Restore Hope to the Future, offers this quote:
“No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo. Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something. You’ll disturb the current situation. We can’t expect those few who are well-served by the current reality to give us time to think. If we want anything to change, we are the ones who have to reclaim time to think.
Thinking is action. When people can think and notice what’s going on, we develop ideas that we hope will improve our lives. As soon as we discover something that might work, we act. When the ideas mean something to us, the distance between thinking and acting dissolves. People don’t hesitate to get started. They don’t sit around figuring out the risks or waiting until someone else develops an implementation strategy. They just start doing. If that action doesn’t work, then they try something different.
This might sound strange to you, because many of us deal with governments and organizations that can’t implement anything. It’s true for all bureaucracies—there’s a huge gap between ideas and actions. But this is because people don’t care about those ideas. They didn’t invent them, they know they won’t really change anything, and they won’t take risks for something they don’t believe in. But when it’s our idea, and it might truly benefit our lives, then we act immediately on any promising notion.” (Wheatley, 2002: p. 98)
We are facing trying times with many losing hope for our communities and this nation. If we are not part of the resistance movement for the oppressed, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. And the blame doesn’t stop there . Rest assured that future generations will be asking what we did when conditions were becoming unbearable? If we are not actively seeking to be part of the solution, then we are part of the problem.
P.S. The reason that I purchased Wheatley’s book was because of one quote that I saw in the book. “It’s not the differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.”
A’Jamal Byndon is the Chair of the PRI board of directors and an adjunct professor at UNO.
This article is a lightly edited version of an article from the September/October, 2019 edition of The Nebraska Report, a publication of Nebraskans for Peace.