Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Black-White American Dilemma

We are a nation at odds—some of us comfortably observing and far too many feeling the heat of the color of their skin. Policing seems (and most likely is) out of control if one lives in America on the black side of the equation. Lacking solutions, we weaponize the police and encourage the judiciary to take a more and more we-against-them attitude.  Meanwhile the prisons fill and society disintegrates.

Disintegrate is an interesting word. ‘Break into parts or components or lose cohesion or unity.’ Forty-seven years after Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, we’re losing the hard won cohesion and unity that seemed so close. I never realized that the death of a single leader could so quickly bring progress to a dead stop and send us backward to the bigotry I knew as a young man. King proved himself to be irreplaceable.

But all that is rhetoric and we’ve heard it all before. Is there anything positive that can be done to lessen the tensions that so drive us apart?


If I were black, I would quit begging the white power-structure for equity. In the near half-century since King’s death, white America repeatedly proved it will give blacks just enough to keep them from burning the damned place down, but no more. And if you think damned place is too fiery a term, think again. Their place in their America is often truly damned. My personal experience relates to Chicago, where I lived the first two-thirds of my life in a comfortable and affluent northern suburb.

But I was a contractor and knew the black ghettos of Chicago from that perspective. Let me tell you a short story.

I and an associate in my office were in one of the city’s high-rise black housing projects doing survey work for an upcoming ‘rehab’ bid, clipboards in hand. I window above us shot up and a black man stuck his head out.
         “Hey white-boys, what you doin’ down there?”
         “Just listing things that need to be done.”
         Damn. Every time a white man shows up around here, my rent goes up.”

With that the window slammed back down, but I’ve never forgotten that conversation that happened thirty-five years ago.

We got the contract and moved equipment on site. A young black man approached me that very first day and asked how I was going to keep all those trucks and tractors safe. He suggested that $100 a day would do the job and I agreed. Nothing was touched during the six weeks we were there and that’s simply how it worked. But it did work, because it was local and a local deal was a deal. $4,200 was a lot of money back then, but I had $100,000 worth of equipment at risk.

Who we are and how we perceive racial or economic solutions depends upon our personal history. That isolated story goes a long way toward shaping my own and it is only one among many. The legislators, judges, prosecutors, prison administrators and sociologists who struggle with solutions to the Ferguson, Baltimore and New York City chaos facing us today have mostly never even met a poor black family, much less acquainted themselves with their lives and struggles. 

It occurs to me that we’re on a wrong path of enforcement, when self-determination and capitalism are lying there as unused tools.

What made America great is self-determination and capitalism, yet these building-blocks of mobility are denied our minority communities. We rely (and have long relied) on power and enforcement. It isn’t working. It has never worked and yet we continue to up the ante.

Suppose—just suppose—that the predominantly black and minority precincts of Chicago (as an example) were self-determining. Draw a picture in your mind of precinct-controlled policing, minority owned banks, auto dealers, groceries, housing developments, schools, small businesses and industries. 

What would a minority owned form of capitalism look like? 
If the money that goes into the actual living of life within a minority community stayed there rather than being siphoned off, would a sustainable social structure form there and grow? A lot of money changes hands among the poor and far too much of it goes into the pockets of those with no skin in the game—absentee landlords are a prime example as their rents increase and maintenance declines. 

Busing kids to schools across the city in the name of school-integration is far more damaging than local schools with local school boards and parents who are able to actually attend those meetings and have a say in their children’s education. Kids would come home from school and associate with those they met in class. That’s the way I was educated in the Evanston public schools, decades before some well-intentioned white but ignorant sociologist invented busing as a path to integration. Let me tell you another story. 

Part of my earlier life included the rehab of a high-school in a black precinct in Chicago. The black principal of that school was a remarkable woman by any standards, but teaching had been her choice. She taught me a great deal about the politics of Chicago schools.

Here was a woman who could have entirely run that school, from budgeting roof repairs to organizing a worthwhile and locally-oriented curriculum. She was among the most perceptive, fascinating and dedicated women I have ever met.

Yet every single requisition she made, from equipping the metal-shop to buying paper, pencils and erasers had to go through the giant bureaucracy of the Chicago School District. The CSD is a Pentagon-sized building that oversees 681 schools including 472 elementary schools, 106 high schools, 96 charter schools, and 7 contract schools, serving 400,000 students, yet they control the pencils at enormous expense to the system.

She told me with a sigh that the metal-shop teacher had been asking for a modern lathe for fifteen years. He currently trained his kids on an engine-lathe that industry has not used for decades. “How does that possibly bring those kids a job?” she asked. 

Good question.

It has always seemed to me that the more civilized we become, the less civil our attitudes toward one another. Civilization brings structure and its definition is ‘the social process whereby societies achieve an advanced stage of development and organization.’ Well it’s not a social process at all.

If you want to see social process, go to small-town America (what’s left of it) and the smaller the better, down to three guys living under a bridge. Hell, you can see it in three partners running a garage, but you won’t find it at Bank of America or Wal-Mart. 

No matter what the university-educated sociologists tell you, along with their ill-informed peers, workable social structures require the consent and active participation of the group.

We kid ourselves as American society grows complex that democracy fills that requirement. Democracy, as we practice it in our republic, totally fails its definition. Ask a single mother in a ghetto what the vote has done for her life. 

We no longer have the consent and active participation that enabled Jefferson, Franklin and the other outstanding fathers of our nation to create the greatest (with all its current flaws) society on earth.

The vote is a joke to the poor and uneducated. Their lives are conscripted by the powerful, all of whom set the rules for a segment of their own society that they essentially disdain, if not outright hate. Community brings the social agreement and cohesion the vote no longer guarantees—and the smaller the better.

Suppose—just suppose—we gave self-determination and capitalism within our wounded cities a chance to succeed; not over several more wasted and imprisoned generations, but now. The black and minority leadership is there right now and known in those communities. That’s what ownership looks like and it works because you look your customer in the face every day, responsible for every decision good or bad.

Time perhaps to finally allow minority communities the responsibility that might make them great.

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