At the risk of sounding yet another clarion call for action that goes unheard, I still feel compelled to discuss the massive and total failure of many of our systems that are in place within the boundaries of the black community. The failure to do what needs to be done is comparable to the levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina. Comparable so much so that what we’re suffering from is akin to a flood. Floods are a steady increase of a force of water that is generally unstoppable and unmovable and floods require the victims to wait it out until storm waters recede.
The Hurricane Katrina comparison is apropos in the sense that I’m living in New Orleans now.
Without going into too much detail about my surroundings (granted its a 50/50 chance you’ll know where I’m talking about), we have a massive failure of our young students in this current culture. There are a plethora of issues that need be addressed, and we hear them talked about ad nauseum and as infinitum. We can recite the failure of public education, the lack of fathers in the home, drugs and gang issues in our sleep and quote statistics like it’s going out of style. But, the issue that I want to briefly discuss is the basic lack of civility that we’re facing today.
It seems that quickly we’re losing a hold on the basics of human interaction. The change from speaking to one another as you pass each other on the sidewalk transitioned seamlessly into mere head nods and now silence without any hint of acknowledgement. That’s not really the end of the world, I grew up in the North and that certainly didn’t affect much one way or the other, but what I’m observing is that many of our young people simply have no couth. It’s not so much that I expect 100% of young people to know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork or which glass is theirs at a five star restaurant as I expect them to put the phone away when an adult is talking directly to them.
Can we blame the parents? Sure. Even at my young age, a teenager doesn’t need a cell phone. The claim during the 1990s was that we were creating a culture of instant gratification, and boy was that prediction true. With instant message, push emails, text message, immediate status updates, up-to-the minute breaking news alerts sent to your phone, actual face-to-face communication at times seems a bit out-moded. No wonder our young people are more fascinated with their phones than with what’s going on in the world happening around them.
I could trot out the warhorse story about a time when a neighbor could spank a child, call the parents and send them home, and they’d spank them again (as if corporal punishment produced the best and the brightest all the time, but that’s another blog post) or about how the community looked out for each other back in the day, but honestly, we see how all of that turned out.
No, I’m not trying to be pessimistic about the situation, but rather trying to be realistic. I think we need to be real about our past motives and how what we were trying to achieve and how we tried to go about achieving them has affected us today. Often times we complain amongst ourselves that “we talk about the problem, but not coming up with solutions” as if to say that a) we’ve correctly diagnosed the problem and b) that we’ve seen the challenge as easy or difficult to surmount. Painting with a broad stroke, since most of the issues that are pre-eminent not just within the black community, but the United States as a whole rest in their foundational and concretized beliefs, these challenges are quite difficult, therefore requiring an adaptive approach to dealing with them.
The problem with “adaptive challenges” is that they are not easily solved.* We can pick up the phone and tell the gas company our furnace at the office isn’t working and we have no heat they send someone out and Voila! your heat is restored. The difficulty arises when the gas company is backed up because of the severe cold snap and you’re told someone will be out around 4pm, and no one shows up, and it’s still cold. Each day maintenance says they’re going to fix it and for various and sundry reasons, it’s still cold in the office. The constant promise of fixing the heat results in a back and forth between the challenge being easily solved or being solved through adapting to the new circumstances.
This is very much the position that blacks in America find themselves.
We had the promise of 40 acres and a mule, but that was taken away, so we adapted. We had the promise of the Reconstruction, but that was taken away and we adapted. We were dealt the blow of Plessy vs. Ferguson, but we adapted. We faced lynch mobs, house bombings, water hoses, attack dogs, redlining in residential neighborhoods, substandard schools, poor city services, unfair sentencing practices, yet we were promised equal protection under the law, affirmative action was implemented and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills were passed. But we still face redlining in residential neighborhoods, substandard schools, poor city services, unfair sentencing practices and plethora of other forms of subtle and institutional racism–so we adapted.
But we’re tired.
The people in the office with no heat in the winter time are placed in a hostile working environment. Persons aren’t happy to come to work, and production slows because they’re preoccupied with a problem that she be no more difficult than calling a maintenance worker, but yet their forced to have to deal with a problem longer than what’s appropriate. As a result the office coffers are lower because of having to pay for space heaters, and ultimately their electric bill may be higher because of the constant energy the space heaters are consuming. The failure to get the main issue solved has resulted in time and effort spent to adapt to the new circumstances and more resources spent on issues that were created (space heaters, higher electric bill) as a result of trying to combat the hostile working environment.
And the people in the office are tired as well.
Having to vacillate between what could be considered a technical and an adaptive challenge is a tiring process. What should be easy has become difficult. What happens is other problems are created and those problems spur their own problems and it becomes a sickening downward spiral that leaves one tired.
At the present bottom of this spiral, we have some of our young people who just aren’t connecting with each other in a way that denotes civility. I think that we need a few people to simply stick their neck out on the line and feel free to tell these young people what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate in certain settings. And by the same token, I think adults need to do a better job of setting an example. We can’t ask our young people to do behavior that we don’t model. If having a cell phone is inappropriate in the classroom setting, then the professor should turn their cell phone off as well and give the students their undivided attention as well.
It’s not so much that we need to continue talking just to place blame at accountable entities and individuals (we can blame the inefficiency of the maintenance workers in the office building just as much as we blame our congresspersons and other governmental agencies), but rather I’m not convinced we’ve really named what the problem is–yet. We’ve sat up and decried Tavis Smiley for holding the State of the Black Union for ten years and not doing anything, but prior to him supporting Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, many black folk didn’t have much to say about him one way or the other. We sit up and talk about Rev. Al Sharpton and his talk show, but most people complaining haven’t even listened to one full show for three hours to see what he has to say exactly. Meta-instances like this can only lead me to do a reverse extrapolation that would say, generally, the people complaining the most are the ones who are doing the least.
Of course in instances like the residents of New Orleans following the levees breaking were not in a position to do much of anything but be rescued from rising flood waters and were solely dependent on the help of the humanity on the outside world, but most of us don’t have a story of being that desolate, yet we sit around and complain and do nothing to adapt to the situation at hand. Am I advocating a resignation to the circumstances of life? Hell no. What I am advocating is that we must learn to manage the meantime properly. Yes, the office is supposed to have heat, but thankfully we do have enough resources to purchase space heaters. The black community has the resources and capital to sustain life amongst ourselves. No, again, not advocating a supreme nationalist or isolationist thought, but rather saying that we have the power, the mindset to not be so dependent on others to do for us what we have the ability to do for ourselves.
To revisit the issue of civility amongst our young people, it’s simply performing the task of being a martyr. But calling one to martyrdom isn’t easy. Martyr has a Greek etymology and its root word forms the Greek word for witness. Just as the writer of the biblical account of the Acts of the Apostles records Jesus telling the disciples that they will be his “witnesses,” I believe it is appropriate that Jesus was asking them to die for a cause. Indeed, history records that many of the disciples met very violent deaths at the hands of the government and by lynch mobs that supported the state tyranny.
I doubt any of us will die in the task of restoring civility within our community, but it certainly is a life sacrifice to participate in doing so. Will we be cussed out? Probably. Called all kind of names? Eventually. Could our house be egged or teepeed? Very possible. Responding to an adaptive challenge is not resigning to the powers that be, but rather regaining control of the situation and redefining it for ourselves. Employing the principles of Kwanzaa concerning self-determination, we have to be able to speak for ourselves and name ourselves instead of being defined and spoken for by others.
Simply stated, it’s a state of emergency, we can’t afford to remain silent as though the problems will rectify themselves.
The following is a quote from Ella Baker.
Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.
* The notion of adaptive and technical challenges comes from Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky and their book Leadership on the Line.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL