This series of posts on the journey of middle-passage blacks in America (mainly in New York) now reaches the present. The previous post addressed the Negro period from the Great Migration to the dawn of the civil rights era. It was a time when blacks left the South and the agricultural way of life for the North and industry. It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the Negro Baseball League, a time when Jackie Robinson and Elvis Presley symbolized that it might be possible for blacks and whites to live together as part of We the People.
In the 1950s, Charlton Heston as Moses (as we were reminded this past weekend) stood on a mountain top and intoned the words of the Book of Leviticus inscribed on the Liberty Bell. The Exodus, meaning “going forth,” was applied not just to the Israelites in the wilderness in the concluding scene of The Ten Commandments, a blockbuster movie of its era, but to its American immigrant audience as well.
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King orated on his dream of Negroes having the opportunity to live the American Dream. Then exactly 50 years ago on April 3, 1968, he delivered his mountaintop speech that also has become part of the American cultural heritage. A day later he was shot and it became Robert Kennedy’s moment of rising to the occasion in Indianapolis to inform a primarily black audience of what had transpired. In a time before cell phones and the internet it is difficult to understand the impact of a single individual with truly breaking news to share with people. It is also equally difficult to imagine any white politician today who could do now what Robert Kennedy did then. It is impossible to imagine our current president even trying.
While the Negro age in the 20th century offered the potential of Negroes living the American Dream, we certainly should not sugarcoat that experience. It still was a time of Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, The Birth of a Nation, and the rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan including in Queens, New York, the father of our current president. Hidden Numbers tells the story how it was a wonderful life for those black women in NASA who helped their country into space and to the moon, but by the 1960s the riots from which some cities never really recovered now defined the decade and the struggle.
On July 13, 2017, Keith Baird died. The name probably is not familiar to you. His obituary in the New York Times carried the title “Linguist Who Campaigned Against the use of the Word ‘Negro’” in the 1960s. Instead he favored the term Afro-American. Baird was born in Barbados at a time when it was still a British colony. He told the story of how when he was growing up his grandfather instructed him that when asked if he was English he was to reply, “’I am not English. I’m an African.’” Evidently, when he emigrated to the United States he brought that attitude with him.
As an adult, Baird’s life was closely associated with schools in New York. He attended Columbia University. He taught and was an administrator in the New York City public schools and taught at Hofstra, Hunter, and SUNY Buffalo. For him, the colonial experience was much more recent than it was for middle –passage blacks to this country. In 1966, at a teachers conference in the nation’s capital, he defined Negro as a term “used solely to described the slaved and the enslavable.” He proposed a new term of ethnic identity as the Irish-Americans had and suggested Afro-American.
So now here we are 50 years later in the famous post-racial era after our bi-racial president. How have things worked out for middle-passage blacks over these five decades as Afro-Americans/African-Americans? On the 50th anniversary of the President Johnson-commissioned Kerner Commission Report, Smithsonian published an article “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened: Released 50 years ago, the infamous report found that poverty and institutional racism were driving inner-city violence” by Alice George. One of the items identified in the report was fear. Here we have been falsely indoctrinated by Hollywood. When has James Bond ever shown true fear? When has John Wayne displayed true fear? When have superheroes expressed true fear? Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis we expect our leaders to be cool and collected and not ranting and raving in hissy-fit tweets like an immature child. It is a very different world when you take for granted or believe it’s a wonderful life and things will work out (as they did for your parents before you) and when you can’t take that for granted. We live in a world where white people don’t want to be OJayed and black people fear cops. It’s hard to build a better tomorrow based on fear and by denying the humanity of the other.
A new study “Healing Out Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report” also examined these issues. Former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, a co-editor of the new report and the last surviving member of the original Kerner Commission, said “Racial and ethnic inequality is growing worse. We’re resegregating our housing and schools again. There are few more people who are poor now than was true 50 years ago. Inequality of income is worse.” The commitment called for in the original report to resolve these conditions was not forthcoming so it should be no surprise that we have not made the improvement the original authors of the report envisioned.
An op-ed piece on March 1, 2018, “The Unmet Promise of Equality” by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis (NYT) documents the “progress” which hasn’t been made. It begins with a quotation from the Kerner Commission on March 1, 1968, 50 years earlier:
“Our nation is moving forward toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Through a series of charts, the authors then illustrate the return to segregation in schools, the inequality in income and wealth, and extent of the mass incarcerations. That subject has been addressed in a book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. In non-scientific terms, it takes much less than six degrees of separation to link any individual African-American to the penal system in some way. Another study by James Forman Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America documents the extent of black-on-black crime within black neighborhoods, the blacks who serve in the law enforcement and judicial system, and the call in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s by African-Americans for tougher enforcement and sentences on drugs and guns. These black advocates for tough enforcement included now Congresswoman Maxine Waters, former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, future O.J. defender Johnnie Cochran, and Fox News favorite former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
As it turns out, both political parties share responsibility for the present situation. The Republican “Southern Strategy” is well-known and was anticipated by President Johnson when he signed the Civil Rights Act. Over time, the Republican Party has ceased even pretending to be the party of Lincoln. If any political figure honors him him, the person is more likely be a Democrat than a Republican. Our former Clinton-supporter president actually was surprised to learn that Lincoln had been a Republican.
But the Democratic Party has been equally successful in exploiting racism for its own advantage. Consider the Congressional Black Caucus, a generally 100% Democratic group. Typically, one contrasts the substantially larger number of black Democratic representatives to the Republicans. The intent it to highlight the racism of only one of the parties when it actually exposes both. What is deliberately overlooked is that all the black Republican representatives were elected by people not of the same race as the candidate. By contrast all (or almost all) of the black Democratic representatives elected since 1965 have been from districts set aside for them where black people dominate. How often do Democrats nominate a black person to run for Congress outside the occupied territories? How often to members of the Congressional Black Caucus go on hold statewide positions like Senator or Governor? How often are they even nominated for such positions? In other words, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have the right to be as colorful as they want (see Maxine Waters) as long as they are not uppity. The Tea Party, with a comparable number of congressional representatives in the Freedom Caucus, demonstrates how the tail can wag the dog. That hasn’t happened on the Democratic side. Democratic blacks know there place.
We have arrived a “back to the future” moment. Once upon a time there was The Negro Travelers’ Green Book. From 1936 to 1964, this publication enabled Negroes to navigate their way throughout the United States by identifying safe places to stay and places to be avoid. As these articles suggest:
Traveling while black (Rhonda Colvin, Washington Post, January 26, 2018)
From the Green Book to Facebook, how black people still need to outwit racists in rural America (Ed Pilkington, Observer, February 11, 2018)
the time of travelling in fear has returned assuming it ever fully left in the first place.
What all this suggests is that no one has a solution to the problem of racism in the United States. What do middle-passage blacks have to show for becoming African-American victims of white racism who no longer dream of living the American Dream? (Actually they still do dream but that’s another post.) Harris and Curtis conclude their op-ed piece with the question: “Have we made progress in the last 50 years?” Unless there is a change, people in the future may look back on 50 years an African-American the same way African-Americans look back on the Negro years. Perhaps it is time for a change.