GUEST COLUMN: Empowering the black powerless

Friday, May 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:59 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 30, 2010

Too many of the black beneficiaries of economic and political progress have squandered our legacy, resources and potency. Despite our civil rights gains, our community remains relatively impotent.

The result of our squandering is community and economic destruction, poverty, unemployment, youth leaving school without motivation or skills, unmarried parents, swollen prisons, inner-city crime and a belief that we don’t have the power to change our condition. Our powerlessness makes it difficult to overcome the effects of changes in the broader community. Negative impacts affect us harder than the wider community.

Although there are now more blacks who are wealthy and who hold positions of celebrity and responsibility, the community from which they came has diminished in power and influence. A major cause of black powerlessness is the wholehearted acceptance of a white definition of who we are and what we should be. Black people will never achieve equality until they discard white definition of blacks. Accepting other definitions causes us to dismiss and denigrate a multitude of attributes and contributions, which are available within our community. It also leads to our dismissing a multitude of negative actions against us.

Although anyone can now name some black celebrity billionaire, millionaire, public official, corporate board member or even corporate CEO, their prosperity does not translate into progress for the multitude of black people who reside in a geographic or psychological ghetto. Too many black notables indicate by their behaviors that the “others” are not their responsibility.

Since the civil rights legislation, there has been a diminished effort on the part of black professionals to secure power for the black community, while there has been an increase in efforts for personal gain and estrangement from the black community.

After legal slavery ended, our motivation has been to prove to white people that we were not like the perception they have of us. Yet we inculcated the values and images that were deviously and diabolically created about us. Prior to the removal of Jim Crow, we were forced to utilize black institutions that developed and nurtured us. We developed well considering the constraints of Jim Crow. We can now go from birth to our grave without encountering a black person with any formal or technical responsibility. Too many black people prefer it that way. We have developed a lack of trust and responsibility for each other.

Many of us quickly embrace the notion that we are not a monolith in order to separate ourselves from the “others.” Black people are fragmented geographically, philosophically, politically and psychologically. This separation is a precursor to powerlessness. We are all impotent in most contexts. We are disenfranchised even when there are opportunities and policies that could be utilized for our benefit. We define our context, progress and ourselves by a paradigm created by others, while exercising too little of our power potential.

If we are to undo our powerlessness and empower ourselves, we must first reconnect. This can be accomplished incrementally on neutral territory such as churches, barber and beauty shops, recreational centers or schools.

Discussions on topics of common interest could generate respect, trust, interest, value and support for each other. An analysis of our reality within our community and in the broader community must be generated. Organizations to address programmatic goals must be developed if they don’t exist.  Existing organizations must be modified and held accountable according to how well they address relevant issues in an appropriate manner. If earlier contributors to the acquisition of our power potential could be effective in a much more overtly hostile and limited context, surely we can now actualize our potential for power.

We must engage vigorously in the development of a search for solutions to problems and opportunities that impact or could impact our community. We can accomplish this by removing the division between our haves and have-nots within our community. We can mobilize our talent, energy and resources to address the myriad issues confronting our community at every level.

This process should start locally.

Local concerned citizens must initiate it.

It must start with open communication.

There must be a process of critical analysis with all voices being heard.

Relevant goals should be established through this process.

Appropriate leadership can arise during this stage.

All relevant segments must be enlisted and continuously respected.

Achievable strategies and programs must be developed and supported.

Corresponding processes and programs of monitoring and accountability must be inherent in all activities to ensure progress.

Celebrations must a part of this process.

National and international agendas and forums by leaders and celebrities can only have validity if they are reflective of the local level. Broad-scope assemblies serve only to bring attention to some problems. The real work must take place at the local level, where we have a chance to achieve our power potential.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeretis for MU.

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Tyree Byndom May 7, 2010 | 10:46 a.m.

I think that Dr. Gene Robertson did a very good job with this article. It is consistent with his viewpoint and his comments on the radio every week at 89.5 FM KOPN Saturday from 4-5pm on the Straight Talk show hosted by him, Wynna Faye Albert and Darrell Foster. I have two things to share and I will share them with him directly on the Missourian. Of the 40 million African-Americans in the US, only 2.4 Million make over $75,000, and are distanced from the others. We just passed the 1 Trillion dollar buying power mark last year. The bottom line is this, what is the power used for, if we had it? I also see some other reasons that the power has wanned and it is because of the systematic killing of Black leaders, the lure of politics, power and greed, the destruction of the colelctive centers in the African-American community, Urban Renewal, which was basically a free land grab, and the abolishment of the clergy. Finally, I will share that it is the millions working for the Fed's making .75 an hour, for 30 years or more, and not being able to claim or utilize any of those skills because they were locked away. The effects of slavery are still rampart and will not go away until we heal. Your list of solutions are great. They lack one thing in my opinion: connection to the Covenant. Tyree Byndom aka Paladon

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 7, 2010 | 7:10 p.m.

I agree with Dr. Robertson on virtually every point he raises.

But what if local Black leaders fail to act when opportunities to improve Black empowerment in Columbia arise?

One example: opportunities to recognize, publicize, educate -- and celebrate -- the importance of local Black history.

Local Black leaders have ignored several recent Black history opportunities. I participated in each of them, and speak from personal experience.

1) Moving the Shotgun House from Garth/Worley to the Boone County Historical Society historic village. Glen Cobbins told me local Black leaders should have championed this project years ago, given the house's significance as both a symbol of Black history and as an example of early 20th century African-American architecture that has been painstakingly preserved in dozens of other American cities.

2) Formally recognizing Isaac Hathaway's Frederick Douglass bust at Douglass High School (Hathaway is ONLY this country's pre-eminent black sculptor and Douglass ONLY history's leading abolitionist).

3) Other than the host himself (Ben Gakinya), I saw no local Black leaders at a Parkade Mall celebration of Black History month this year that also partly honored Isaac Hathaway's work. Ben worked his tail off to put this show together, inviting various local Black leaders, none of whom showed up. The disappointment was palpable.

This failure to recognize local Black history has another, potentially more debilitating side. Last year, downtown eminent domain -- which basically wiped out Columbia's black community under the guise of "Urban Renewal," as Tyree points out -- reared its ugly, racist head again.

The State Historical Society director -- in a letter to City Hall -- actually advocated for the re-establishment of a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) -- the same organ of destruction that left Columbia's Black community in economic tatters a half-century ago.

Yet, we heard not a peep from the same local Black leadership that rallied so loudly over the Cotton Ball incident.

Likewise, we hear little or nothing from them about lack of basic city infrastructure (from sidewalks to storm sewers) in our historically black neighborhoods (a remnant of segregation); and we hear little or nothing from them about slumlords who have systematically destroyed our historically black neighborhoods with crime, decay, and neglect.

Tyree and I have emailed back and forth repeatedly about this ironic and troubling situation, asking, in essence, where is the Leadership on these important issues?

Without it, Dr. Robertson's eloquently stated goals will never come to pass.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 8, 2010 | 6:19 a.m.

Reading assignment: Consider the thoughts and advice of Thomas Sowell, Bill Cosby and Walter E. Williams. Use a search engine and each person's name, and read what they have to say. Walter E. Williams can also be read through his syndicated column in the other local newspaper. The column doesn't appear daily, but typically two or more times a week.

These three black men represent a significantly different voice from that associated with national black leadership.

(Report Comment)
Jose Melendez May 8, 2010 | 7:55 a.m.

Legal slavery has not ended. It's now called the drug war, and has grown to encompass poor whites after decades of targeting blacks and latinos.

Want power? Legalize all drugs. Ask former cops:

(Report Comment)

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