Last year during Black History Month I spoke before a group of mostly Black executives in a Detroit church about the role of the media in economic transformation, community activism and helping Black businesses grow. This was before anyone could realize that a recession would greet the assumption to power of the first Black president of the world’s leading superpower.
The forum/workshop was designed to help them understand what the Black press does and what they perceive as their role in the community as leaders of institutions.
During my presentation I challenged these institutional leaders on what they are doing for their own community. I asked how active are they in their own neighborhoods and whether they are leaving a legacy for the next generation of Black children to follow.
There was silence in the room. I thought, I got the wrong invitation. I knew I would not get another invitation to speak.
But then I realized that we have a deeper problem in the Black community that seldom gets the attention it deserves: the continued failure of the majority of Black executives/intellectuals who proudly see themselves as products of the Civil Rights Movement but have done little or nothing to address the structural problems that the movement was all about.
There is a deep disconnect between the majority of our Black executives/intellectuals and the Black community they came from.
Let’s be clear. I am not calling on these executives and intellectuals to be civil rights activists. I am simply asking them to demonstrate and give back to the communities they came from. Rather, they prefer that the Black community remains a museum for them to parade their friends in high places to show the impoverished environment they grew up in when they ought to be doing something concrete to change lives and conditions.
These executives and intellectuals love to use the word “community” to disguise their empty commitment and lack of responsibility to the Black community that gave them what they have today.
Most of them talk loud at meetings and conferences about helping “our” community, but then disappear when its time to bring resources and themselves to address crucial problems facing us.
Some of them boast about how the motivation of “rugged individualism” made them what they are. But the hard fact is that the Black founding fathers who fought for equal access to quality education and every form of decency that should be accorded to a human being, did so with the motivation of personal sacrifice. They saw themselves as part of the collective, not as an individual trying to achieve the American upper mobility success. They did not define their arrival in life for transforming the Black community as success. They saw it as greatness.
This is not a tall order. Greatness is not defined by one’s ability to create an earthquake-like transformation. It is simply one’s commitment to changing people’s lives – an example is securing the educational future of Black children.
How many of these executives and intellectuals have created scholarship programs to help fight illiteracy in Detroit?
How many of them are involved in mentoring young Black children who are being told by the mass media that the role models they have are bereft of anything meaningful?
How many of them have used the clout of their institutions to leverage programs that can change young lives?
The Black community has been wedded to these executives and their counterpart intelligentsia for a long time. We have always seen them as the best products cities like Detroit and the rest of Black America could offer. Because they came from the Black community, they enjoy a layer of deep protection from us should anything happen to them, as was evident in the case with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr..
But in turn what have they offered us as part of this marital covenant? What have they done to merit the continuous relationship?
Aside from them being a motivation for the rest of us to work harder and become like one of them, can a Black child look into their eyes and say his or her life has been transformed by something concrete they did?
After Gates’ arrest by a White police officer in his own house, he told the Washington Post on July 21, “There are one million Black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them. This is outrageous and this is how poor Black men across the country are treated every day in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it but altogether another to experience it.”
It is laughable and ridiculous that Gates now realizes the impact of incarceration and its consequence on the lives of ordinary Black men. It is deeply hypocritical for a scholar on race to now only vow to use his grand platform to assess the disproportionate impact of the prison industrial complex on the Black community after his own personal and disgraceful experience. It is selfish on the part of Gates to wait that long before making it public that he would devote a PBS documentary on this subject.
This is a classic case of subtle classicism, another impediment to the Black struggle because the likes of Gates think that pristine Harvard has all the answers.
I wonder what would be going on in the mind of Harry Belafonte who has devoted his time despite aging to still continue his mentoring of Black men behind prison walls?
Let’s see whether Gates, after his White House beer roundtable, will keep to his word of addressing racial profiling, disproportionate sentencing and consequently rehabilitation for ex-offenders.
But Gates’ behavior is nothing new. It is symptomatic of the blatant double-standard manifested by many members of the Black intelligentsia and their corresponding executives.
When they are in trouble, that is when they think about addressing the conditions of the community that gave birth to them. They then submit to the understanding of the deep structural problems that sometimes give rise to the problems in the neighborhoods which they’ve sometimes denied existed in the course of their professions.
When they get fired from their jobs that is when they have an epiphany about the Black press and its role in addressing racism. All of a sudden they recite the historical role of the Black press as a lantern in a bid to convince us that they are in touch with the community.
This cycle of hypocrisy has to stop. This bad marriage between our community and Black executives and their complementary intellectuals has to be amended.
The problems in Detroit, and other urban cities, will not be solved through intellectual acrobatics by those who use the problems as a body of scholarship for their own aggrandizement, with little or no consideration to effecting change in the community.
You cannot spend 90 years in a university lab researching theories about the problems of race and its consequences when Black children cannot get a decent education.
You cannot brag about how many promotions you’ve received as the top Black executive in your company who emerged from a poor neighborhood when you have not created any meaningful program that your own neighborhood can benefit from.
What is your legacy if the children in your neighborhood today cannt look up to you because you have failed to return with a program that helps them confront the compounding challenges they are faced with?
In Detroit they say people talk a good game. And that is what I encounter when I engage some of these executives and intellectuals at events and so-called high profile functions
They talk a good game but can show little or nothing to back it up.
If he has truly been transformed by what happened to him in his Cambridge home, Professor Gates will not be talking a good game anytime soon. Instead, he will be for real.
We can all learn to be for real.
Senior Editor Bankole Thompson is a radio and television analyst, sought after moderator and public lecturer. His latest book is “A Matter of Black Transformation.”
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.