Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Statement of the Problem

The first thing you write on a grant proposal is what they call "The Statement of the Problem." It's a description of why you think something needs to be done. I was working on a proposal for a program at my school last week-end and after I read it over a few times, I decided that "The Statement of the Problem" deserved a little more attention than it may ever get in its current application. So here it is. Keep in mind as you read that it is not referring to every single male of color on every U.S. college campus, but I see far too many on mine that fit the description.

A strong desire to imagine and purport that racism no longer exists in the lives of most African-Americans masks its presence and effects in the United States today. Despite the disappearance of immediately visible and enforced racial segregation, what some sociologists now call “neo-racism” results in such broad manifestations that statistics in every area of daily life document the up-hill climb success remains for many African-Americans even after decades of supposed progress.

Not only are African-American males four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American males at every educational level, but young Black males are infinitely more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than their European-American counterparts. This is, unfortunately, all too common knowledge. Further, White family’s average net worth is still 11 times that of Black families, even when we control for income, education, and family size. And largely African-American urban centers are disproportionately likely to be poverty-stricken and crime-filled without the presence of adequate compensating opportunities for any kind of personal development. In such an egregiously difficult social context, many African-American males arrive at young adulthood filled with grave self-doubt and little sense that they can, in fact, (and deserve to) access a successful future for themselves.

These particular young men often struggle with poor educational backgrounds, traceable to poor schools, poor nutrition during formative years (because of chronic poverty), and the lowered expectations of those authority figures and even teachers with whom these young men have been forced by circumstances to interact over their entire lives. But, as if this is not enough, these same young men have a far greater struggle inside themselves, as they deal with the pain of believing that they are incapable – of learning, of performing, and of achieving beyond the lowest possible goals. Those that are fortunate manage to get into college, but often with just enough of an edge to get in, and no idea whatsoever what to expect or how to negotiate the shoals of college life, still in many ways presented at the average university as a middle class White experience accessible only to specific students of color.

Nowhere in the United States are racial inequalities more apparent than they are on the public university campus, where many young men and women of color are allowed to enter, but expected to fail, where they can watch others successfully acquire the knowledge and skill sets necessary to seamlessly move into the job market as fully prepared workers, but where they nevertheless all too often carry the constant frustration and pain of not being able to find enough belief in themselves to complete that same journey.

A study by Claude Steele at Stanford University in 1999 and since replicated many times, for example, showed that when college students about to take standardized tests were told that the exams were simply for practice, Black students tended to score roughly as well as White students. When, on the other hand, the students were instructed that the tests would be used to rank them for placement purposes, the Black students scored lower. Worse, the best Black students showed the greatest effect in a demonstration of what was apparently their even more heightened fear of not measuring up to White students.

Universities are using such research now to justify creating programs for the purpose of reaching out to and retaining students of color. How successful can these programs really be, however, if they do not take into consideration the fact that the overall society in the United States still relegates these young people to the back of the social bus? Even as they study, even as some become computer-literate and learn how to pass classes, many of them suffer with broken hearts and a sense of their own unworthiness, a condition supported by the default position of White Supremacy in a nation where this reality is not only ignored, but denied. How can they come to believe in themselves when the society in which they live their daily lives continually communicates to them their reduced status?

As long as this situation exists, no amount of superficial programming will do much more than teach students of color and most particularly Black males how to “act White” better. No matter how committed they are or how hard they work, if they do not, as Bob Marley sang, “emancipate their minds from mental slavery,” in the end, the best they may be able to hope for is to someday find themselves able to afford a flashy car, while never actually reaching their full potential or being comfortable in their own skins – assuming they graduate at all. The entire African-American community struggles under the hardship of this truth.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why We Have "Black History Month"

The other day, I received an email from a student who was questioning why we have Black History Month every February. Somewhat modified, this was my response:

The reason we have Black History Month is because we don't typically have history taught as it actually occurred. In essence, we have White History Month all year round. What we should be doing is having True History taught all the time, but we're nowhere near this happening at this point since White Supremacy is still the default position in this country. So-called Black History Month is a knee-jerk concession to the fact that we don't intend to change the way we teach history in general because it makes White people look as if they're the only ones important enough to study seriously--when they're not.

Race, as I so often say and write, was socially-constructed about five hundred years ago and there are those who call for brushing it aside as a concept now. Unfortunately, however, despite the category of "race" being a fabrication, rampant racism and, in fact, institutionalized oppression against all people of color and women are still fully functional throughout the society we live in. Because of this, we have no choice but to continue the practice of trying to give Truth a word in edgewise.

Some folks suggest that observing Black History Month keeps us stuck in the past. They apparently imagine that two hundred fifty years of slavery was the only oppression ever perpetrated against African-Americans when that's far from the case. Historical oppression is still taking a toll because it made White society rich at the expense of people of color and that huge foundation creating and bank-rolling the White power structure has yet to be addressed. But even so, statistical data clearly documents that full-tilt discrimination against people of color and most particularly African-Americans is as United Statian as apple pie right now.

Another argument I sometimes hear for doing away with the practice of honoring our African-American heritage as a crucial part of our national history and focusing appropriately on White participation in the oppression of people of color is that Black History Month somehow keeps the problem of race relations in this country all "stirred up" instead of "letting" us all learn to "love" each other (as Christian doctrine teaches).

In reality, Christianity as an organized religion has participated in the process of oppression against people of color since it helped to invent the concept of "race." There are and have always been some Christians who are committed to fighting injustice and oppression, but most church-goers who look like me just talk about love and being "one in Christ." While the family in the pew next to them might be African-Americans, they're basically being given positions as honorary White people for church-going purposes only. Let them wake up on Monday morning with a taste for parity in the job market and watch what happens--and who doesn't want to get involved with "that sort of thing."

White people who only "love" Black people in church need to remember Jesus' admonition that inasmuch as we have done it (or not done it) to the least of these His brothers (and sisters), we have done it to Him. In my opinion, not attacking oppression against the powerless is just exactly the kind of thing Jesus was probably talking about.

Whether White people like it or lump it, get it or don't, people of color are owed a whole lot more by this society than one month of reflection a year. The hard work and creativity of people of color are evidenced everywhere you look in this country and they have at no point been invited to fully participate in the benefits they made possible for White citizens who have, in fact, paid far less dearly for what they have always expected to receive, accumulate, and enjoy. African-Americans are not even allowed full citizenship in their own country. That's apartheid, just like South Africa had.

I'm always fascinated by the way some folks say this nation demonstrates its godlessness by not having prayer in school. I think it demonstrates its godlessness by brutalizing people of color (all over the world) for money right up to the present and pretending it's not happening. Until that's understood, we better keep right on having Black History Month. If knowledge is power, then there's a whole lot of White folks in this country in dire straits because they don't know their asses from a hole in the ground.
The graphic above is the work of Syracuse Cultural Workers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Quote of the Week

"It is good to know that there still remains a creative minority who would rather lose in a cause that will ultimately win than to win in a cause that will ultimately lose."
~written by Martin Luther King, Jr., to Charles Sherrod, Diane Nash and the others who went to jail on this day in 1961 for requesting service at a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The ten college students refused to post bail and demanded jail time rather than paying fines, refusing to acknowledge any legitimacy of the laws under which they were arrested.
Thanks to This Week in Peace History for this information.

Two Thumbs Up!

Last year, while I was still in Tampa, I had lunch with a former student of mine and some of her friends. One of them was an African-American woman in her twenties who had gone to school for fashion design, worked hard, and then won an internship to travel with the Ebony Fashion Fair for a while. She was excited (needless to say) that EFF had decided to purchase a couple of her dresses (talk about starting at the top!)

While reading one of my latest Jet Magazines last night, I scanned the names of the designers mentioned in the current show and there it was, among the greats -- Balmain, Biagiotti, Montezin, Missoni, and Elizabeth Carson of Tampa. Two thumbs up for designer Elizabeth Carson, a young woman of color who knew she could. And two thumbs up, as well, for an organization that'll give a young woman of color a shot when she's got it coming.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Tote That Barge, Lift That Bale

It was this week in 1865 that the U.S. legislature passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. Three-quarters of the states ratified it before the end of the year, making the Amendment official, though, just for the record, Kentucky didn't ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 1976 and Mississippi never has.

If you notice the Amendment's wording, however, you realize that the way to get around it was written right into the Amendment itself:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a
punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly
, shall exist within the United States, or any place
subject to their jurisdiction.

Any state that wanted to take advantage of this codicil, as it were -- whether Northern or Southern -- could by simply arresting and incarcerating African-American males who were now, of course, "free" men. This was hardly difficult to do if you just shut them out of the job market and then implement Jim Crow laws that could lock them up for such infractions as not stepping off the sidewalk when a White person walks by.

Now that corporations have stepped into the picture, it's not likely that this game plan is going to be abandoned anytime soon. CorpWatch paints a graphic picture of how insidious and well developed the prison industrial complex is today.

And lest we imagine that African-Americans are the only people of color to suffer under the lash (literally and currently), despite the Thirteenth Amendment, check out this story from Nezua Limon Xolagrafik-jonez, The Unapologetic Mexican.

Or how about this story concerning the Louisiana sheriff who forced prisoners to work in a
stolen vehicle "chop shop" and serve as a pit crew for his hot rod?

What to do about all this? You can look into Free the Slaves or Not For Sale or Ten Students or Critical Resistance -- all of which are organizations working in one way or another to eliminate what the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution supposedly addressed more than 140 years ago.