A good friend once quipped that “Blacks have a history of asking for the wrong things — and getting them.”
Fifty years after the second emancipation of Blacks in this country, that argument, it seems, has some merit. The things Blacks fought for and won have proven to be offerings that cost America nothing, though many argued that it owed a great deal more than the value even those hard won victories would bring to Blacks.
As I’ve scanned the deluge of retrospectives about “The King Days,” the consensus is fairly grim. Legislated opportunities such as the right to vote, integration/desegregation, equal employment, access to schools and more seem not to have improved the overall standing of African descendants in the American scheme of things. Blacks are still tightly tethered to the bottom by most measures.
Only First Nations/Native Americans, a people who were at once brought to the brink of extinction, can be said to be in worse overall condition, land ownership and sovereignty notwithstanding. By 1997, U.S. Census measurement of median household income showed Blacks trailing the pack with Hispanics at $26,628 and Asians at $45,249 and Blacks at $25,050 per year and falling backwards to $23,583 by 1999. Today, the challenges remain. “Left behind” is is the phrase that characterizes many a report on many an ill, left to the social gains of charity-driven foundation or tax funded programs and the palms-up politics of immutable “political minority” status.
In a land where money matters, it is difficult to reconcile the cruelest of ironies, that those who fought first, longest and hardest, establishing an American legacy model of successfully legislated civil rights that have benefited not only Americans, but the global community as well, would consistently remain last in social, economic and political standings after fifty years of operation under America’s Civil Rights/Voting Rights Acts.
And yet, should it be said that Blacks asked for the wrong things? The question may be more one of not having gone the last mile, winning all the right things.
The example that comes to mind is a small business start-up. The most frequent and most often fatal mistake for the majority of failed businesses is undercapitalization. Everything else may be in order and look promising at the start. But no matter how great the idea, the product, the marketing and business plan, or how many people are in your corner, without sufficient start-up capital to hold a business together through tough times, it is doomed to fail.
As with any truly new business concept, competition quickly springs up, takes the best ideas and improves upon them, cherry picking the best clients, underselling where possible, and the competition often ends up devouring the new business in the absence of sufficient cash reserve to outlast competitors in the trenches. Under such attack, the cost of doing business increases. No matter how much others wanted to see the business succeed, the wolves will soon be scratching at the door.
Look around folks. The costs were immense, and wolves have just about eaten through the door of opportunity since 1964-65. Affirmative Action is being devoured slowly and painfully. White females have been the affirmative action candidates and minority business participants of choice. EEO is virtually meaningless except perhaps in government employment. Toothless “Multicultural Diversity” applies to everything from H-1B visa workers and illegal aliens to gay rights, breast feeding mothers and yes, “Diversity” itself is now the domain of “The White Guy.” Just ask him.
Perhaps it was ever thus.
The tiny flurry of Black corporate executives who made it by the end of the last century have since walked the retirement plank with few to no Black successors. The even darker side includes questionable killings, arrest and incarceration rates, poverty, education and test scores and the inability to catch a taxi in most major metro areas. And let’s not even start discussing the bleak and hopeless future of minorities in politics. Blacks have been out-ranked, out-flanked and out-banked, despite ostensible legislative gains.
The rights Blacks won during the King days are held as precious to many. But the push-back has been mighty, the competition has been fierce, the dilution of those hard-won rights has been great, and the business strategy of the foes of equality has been well executed.
The perspective of younger people on King is understandably skewed by the biased reporting of history, the focus being on nonviolence and love. The collective memory of King among older people is often skewed by sentimentality and the effect of public relations messaging over many years. Although these are not “wrong” in the truest sense of the term, there are those who know and remember other aspects of King’s messages and goals…and not just how, but why he was killed.
The bottom line is that Negro leaders of the sixties focused primarily on democracy and participation in political processes, but either ignored capitalistic economics or were killed before their economic agenda and related demands could fully take shape.
The American Negro, therefore, marched into relative freedom singing, with hearts full of joy but pockets as empty as the promise of equality. Blacks were given neither a square inch of the land on which they were enslaved, nor a fraction of a share of equity in the mega-companies that grew out of the sweat of their ancestors. The American Negro leadership under King won precisely what they asked for, all honorable things. But they were cut short as the demands were forming as a priority for an equity stake in that which Blacks had built.
The death of Martin Luther King was “untimely,” but perhaps not from everyone’s viewpoint. The result of that timing is the evident historical reality that African Americans had won the right to play in the high stakes poker game of capitalism, but with no chips on the table.
Copyright © 2014 Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved
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Credits: The chart: graphic above is a portion of a chart from the post athttps://hbr.org/2013/06/is-your-firm-really-an-equal-o , an article from, “Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, authors of Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private Sector Employment since the Civil Rights Act, published in 2012 by Russell Sage. Stainback is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University, and Tomaskovic-Devey is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
This article is a slightly edited version of the original which appeared in The New Pittsburgh Courier in 2002. Yes…2002. If that “makes [you] wanna holler, throw up both [your] hands,” visit nuClusiv.com to explore a different approach.