One of the more haunting, inescapable, questions that pervade the minds of many, seeks to understand the plight of Black Americans. Some suppose their disproportionate propensity for incarceration and poverty is self-sabotage, while others believe it to be rooted in inequity. My response has evolved in a manner that can only be described as unenthusiastically mechanic because of how often I have had to approach this conundrum. The question comes in many forms: “Why is the black community so poor? Why don’t they just get educated? Why do they have so many single mothers? How is affirmative action fair? Why is there so much crime in their communities?” The question lacks no variety. Really, it comes down to one simple ask; “Why can’t black people get ahead?” I imagine the importance of this question, for many non-Black Americans is rooted in the desire of being told that there is a reason for the misfortunes of Black people that alleviates all social responsibility. There is not much urgency to address a problem that is merely self-induced. There is an old colloquial metaphor that helps Americans anesthetize themselves to the pain of others. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” How unlikely a scenario to imagine, where an exhausted horse is led to water and rejects its instincts to refresh itself. Of course, the logic of this common phrase is accepted as a reminder of American principle, that interfering with the suffering of others is a fruitless venture.
Pseudo-intellectualism is the act of using intelligent language to explain a belief with insular logic. Andrew Sullivan quite masterfully used this tool in an article in which he attempts to dismantle social inequity within the black community by lauding the high achievements of Asian and Jewish Americans. Both groups have endured insurmountable forms of persecution. Whether it be Hitler’s Holocaust which led to the internment, torture, and murder of millions of Jewish people, some of whom are still alive today and many who are currently living as the directly affected descendants of this cruelty. Asian Americans have been subjected to American cruelty as well, including but certainly not limited to internment, racist abuse, and violence. Sullivan questioned, if Asian and Jewish Americans can succeed, why then have Black Americans continued to perpetuate cycles of ineptitude? Why is it that black people just cannot seem to get ahead?
I would like to preface my rebuttal simply by stating that one group’s disenfranchisement is not invalidated or affirmed through comparison. Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Women, LGBTQ members, Muslims, and every other marginalized group, is just that… marginalized. We must learn to be honest about the impacts that social injustice can have on a specific group without giving in to the temptation to diminish the impact it has had on another, simply to advance one’s own agenda. It is not my responsibility as a black man to explain to anyone why they feel my community has not lived up to their “reasonable” expectations. I have no interest in or obligation to rank the complex struggle of Black America’s recovery. However, I would like to explain how my community has arduously navigated our way to a difficult place in a country established on ideals meant to impede us.
For 245 years, black families were enslaved, experiencing horrific atrocities at the hands of American presidents, religious institutions, major industries, and countless other collaborators. 13 generations of Black Americans were stripped of their language, culture, families, freedom, and humanity. This country, as we know it, very well may not even exist long enough for Black people to experience freedom in longer than they have been enslaved in it. As descendants of genocide, Black Americans who are often told to go back to Africa if they do not like the way things are in America, do not even know where in Africa their home would be.
The free labor these slaves provided amounts to nearly $300 billion dollars. When historians ponder just how the United States, such a young country, managed to accelerate as a premier world power and leading economy so quickly, the conclusion always leads them back to that invaluable contribution. The slaves were an unrivaled economic engine, and despite the efforts of abolitionists and an insincere President Lincoln, that value was never passed on to freed slaves. In 1865 Black Americans were given the insult of trading in their literal chains for metaphorical ones. After 245 years of slavery, Black Americans were forced into the Jim Crow era of mandated segregation and inequality. Black children were denied quality education and black parents were denied decent paying jobs. Many law enforcement departments were central command hubs for hostile intimidators, including the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Crow laws lasted into the 1950s when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling finally required the racial integration of public schools; however, lynching’s of black Americans continued into the 1980s. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and many other spokesmen for black liberation were conspired against and threatened by their own government. Some were killed.
It seems that only in the first world of America, people are curious as to how Black Americans have not “caught up” to centuries of injustice in just two generations. We have yet to consider the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws that have led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans. Nor have we discussed the impact of social engineering, a legal means for withholding American equity from Black Americans through the disproportionate approval of business and mortgage loans. We have not discussed the lack of access to quality education for children who live in districts with low tax-revenues or teens grappling with the cultural bias of exams that preclude them from the higher education they deserve. Lack of access to healthcare, and minimum wages that ensure basic survivability has yet to be discussed. Some conclude that our first black President, Barack Obama is a clear sign that racial bias is no longer a barrier to success, but when the nearly unachievable standards we held him to were not remotely considered for his successor, that conclusion cannot hold.
Harvard released a study in 2003 which examined empirical data showing that a white applicant with a criminal history would be shown preferential treatment by potential employers over that of black applicants with no criminal history at all. Black people are not unsuccessful. We are currently making our way out of a 320-year deficit, one, our critics are determined not to acknowledge. So, when someone asks why black people cannot get ahead, they should really consider how in the world we have gotten so far.