From the introduction to Redefining Black Power: Reflections on the State of Black America
Redefining Black Power is a work in progress, a wheel in motion made of many spokes – this book, a multimedia Web site, a series of radio programs, and ongoing community conversations and roundtables that address and respond to the changing political moment. During the first six months of the Obama presidency, hosts and producers across the Pacifica Radio network gathered the early thoughts of community organizers, activists, artists, religious leaders, academics, educators, and youth in a series of roundtable discussions and listener phone ins. Conversations anchored by Margaret Prescod, Lucia Chappelle, Aimee Allison, and Gloria Minnott spanned the gamut of campaign memories, election night highs, inauguration day hopes and concerns surrounding the term “post racial.”
“I’m a little afraid that I don’t understand or agree with the interpretation of the post-racial identity that has come about as a result of the election of Barack Obama,” said Karen Spellman, a Washington DC-based former worker with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “I think that we, African Americans, have to define when we’ve reached the end of racism. I don’t think that it’s incumbent upon those who are the oppressors to tell us we no longer have race as a factor.”
As well as sharing their thoughts on the Obama White House, roundtable participants responded to issues dominating the news agenda, including Attorney General Eric Holder’s February 2009 speech in which he said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
“I really don’t think that Obama’s racial makeup and discussions around race should have anything to do with one another” said Mayra Jimenez, who sat on the Youth Panel held at KPFK in Los Angeles. “What he’s going to do for the country is one thing; his ethnicity and background are another.”
Eric Holder’s comments on race were viewed differently by Oakland-based arts activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph: “There is a signpost in the presidency of Barack Obama that points folks of all races into a conversation on race. Now, whether that conversation is a cursory one or whether it leads to wide-spread transformation is a whole other thing.”
In addition to a series of roundtables at the community level, over a two-year period I conducted a series of in-depth conversations with noted scholars, revolutionaries, organizers, authors, and activists representing several generations of progressive black intellectuals. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, sheds light on the criminal justice system and the impact of mass incarceration on African American communities, while economist and Bennett College president Dr. Julianne Malveaux calls for targeted assistance to address rising levels of long-term unemployment within black communities. During our conversation Malveaux insists that if black America wants more, they need to demand more from their leaders and the Obama administration. “The relationship between President Obama and the black community reveals the weaknesses in African American leadership. You don’t see the same thing with the gay and lesbian community or with the Latino community. People are going and asking for what they want and they’re clear about it. African Americans are not doing that.”
For Van Jones, founder of Rebuild the Dream and the former White House Green Jobs adviser, black civic leadership, not elected officials or president Obama, directly address the needs of black America: “it’s the NAACP’s job to deal with the question of black leadership. It’s the Urban League’s job, Al Sharpton’s job. It’s not the president’s job. It’s not his job to fix black America.”
One issue that influences and threads through all of the discussions is the media; from political campaigns to how the Obama girls wear their hair, the media is ever present, and what it chooses to show and not show; and how, directly influences public consciousness and the national narrative itself.
“One of the problems that I see with the American media and the Obama presidency is that the rise of President Obama runs parallel to the continuing decline in the press,” explains veteran journalist and Philadelphia Tribune columnist Linn Washington. “We have more shallow and sensationalistic coverage versus more probative coverage. On the campaign trail, there were numerous examples of a glaring lack of in-depth coverage, and I think that helped him in some ways, but further polluted the coverage as it affected the deep and insidious issue of race in America.”
While Redefining Black Power is focused on the impact of the first black president of the United States and its significance in the context of black freedom struggle, in every conversation, we also took time to explore the profound importance and meaning of the fact that the First Family is a black family, and how it projects a glowing example of black love, dignity, and family values.
“When Michelle Obama got to be the cover girl on Vogue, every brown girl who was told she was too brown, too tall, butt too big, too this, too that, got to be a cover girl in that moment,” says WBAI host and producer of the Emotional Justice series, Esther Armah. “The history of those images, in the future, may be more powerful than whatever policy was or was not mastered in the time that Barack Obama was in the White House.”
Dr. Vincent Harding, veteran civil rights activist and colleague of Martin Luther King, says that understanding the historic power and possibilities that the First Family and President Obama present to black Americans involves understanding the full trajectory of black history in the United States as a “movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America.”
Hundreds of years of enslavement, abuse, and denial of rights by white society set the course for race relations in the United States. When the first Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, the white people who enslaved them did not consider them to be human; they were commodities, livestock, meant to be bought, sold, bred, and used for work. Over the lifetime of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, twelve million Africans would be herded across the ocean in cramped boats like cattle. These people were beaten, abused, and traded; women raped and their children consigned to lives of oppression, forced labor, and misery. Adding to the horror is the fact that the U.S. legal system long enforced the right of whites to enslave people of color; in fact, one in four U.S. presidents were directly involved in human trafficking.
Black history has been shaped and defined by resistance to the reality of these facts and the relentless, multigenerational efforts to abolish the injustices perpetuated over the ages. Early efforts to redress the issue include the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments in the 1860’s to the attempts to “recognize the equality of all men before the law” via the Civil Rights Act of 1875 during the Reconstruction Era.
Jim Crow laws establishing “separate but equal” would strangle attempts for equality for almost one hundred years until the landmark United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which ended segregation, at least on paper. Out of this grew the broad black freedom movement of which struggles for civil rights and black power were part. Only sixty years ago, much of the country enforced a state of racial apartheid. Blacks, people of color, and progressives organized, marched, and confronted the white-dominated system. They fought for dignity, equal rights, voting rights, and fairness for all across the full spectrum of life – housing, education, health, employment, and cultural expression. Their voices, vision and victories gave birth to yet new struggles.
Progress, of course, has been made and greater freedoms are enjoyed today. But there are almost constant reminders that entrenched racial injustice persists at many levels. In addition to well-known flashpoints like thee 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the1999 shooting of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York City, the Jena Six case, and the execution-style killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, in 2009, people of color in the United States continue to suffer greater rates of incarceration, unemployment, housing discrimination, and significantly lower levels of wealth than do whites. A study published by the Pew Institute in July 2011 revealed, “Median wealth of whites is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, double the already marked disparities that had prevailed in the decades before the recent recession.” “We have not ended racial caste in America,” writes Michelle Alexander, “we have merely redesigned it.”
Further studies focusing on education, child poverty, and home foreclosure offer little respite from the gloomy forecast for black America. A 2010 report from the Schott Foundation revealed just 47 percent of African American males graduated from high school in the 2007/8 academic year. The poverty rate for black children is 36 percent, compared to 12 percent for non-Hispanic whites; and on the housing front, African American and Latino homeowners are expected to lose an estimated 350 billion dollars in wealth due to the ongoing foreclosure crisis. It’s clear that more needs to be done to address the “unfinished task of emancipation.” How, if at all, will the first African American presidency help the United States to better address that task and the many challenges outlined through our roundtable discussions and the conversations presented in this book?
Historians, community organizers, activists, and others will likely continue to ask that question for years to come. It is, however, a point of discussion today, and it is this national and global conversation of which the Redefining Black Power project is a part.
Just as the voices in the Pacifica Radio Archives provide an audio connection to the hearts, minds, and voices of the black freedom movement over fifty years ago, it is our vision that this project will begin to build connections around the issues being faced today with an awareness of the possibilities, history concerns, and expectations of a cross section of progressive black intellectuals and community activists.
This book is not, and never set out to be, a work of academic rigor or an anthology of the key players in the black freedom movement. Instead, this book, coupled with the roundtable discussions and audio documentaries produced and aired on the Pacifica Radio Network, provides a marker in history a snapshot in time, and a starting point for ongoing conversations about the past, present, and future of black America.
The Obama presidency represents a major milestone in black history and the struggle for political, economic and cultural equality in the United States. But how–if at all–has the first black presidency helped move things forward for people of color? Has it delivered the “change we can believe in” and “deepening of democracy” that communities of color organized around? How has the reality and image of a black First Family impacted American culture? What lessons from past struggles can be applied to this unique historical moment to advance multicultural democracy in the U.S.?
Starting the exploration of these questions with the voices of past civil rights and black power activists held in the historic Pacifica Radio Archives, BBC journalist Joanne Griffith traveled the country to interview black intellectuals, leaders and activists.
The result is a rich and wide-ranging exploration of the hot-button issues facing African Americans today, from religion, law and media to education and the economy, to the ever-shifting meaning of Obama’s contribution and impact. Both timely and rich in personal wisdom, Redefining Black Power connects the dots between past civil rights struggles and the future of black civic and cultural life in the United States.
Featuring Van Jones, Michelle Alexander, Julianne Malveaux, Vincent Harding, Ramona Africa, Esther Armah and Linn Washington Jr.
Foreword by Pacifica Radio Archives director Brian DeShazor.