Why I Hesitate to Use the “P-word”… “Progress” & Black American Life
“Nobody is free until everybody is free.” -Fannie Lou Hamer
Why am I so hesitant to speak of progress? I think it’s because my heart is heavy and my conscience is unclear given what I know about our present. I can’t state enough that the middle and upper class, college educated, and successfully professional Black people are the exceptions, statistically insignificant sub-populations of a larger community embroiled in a struggle much like the past. The word “past” has proven dangerous in these conversations because it overplays the difference of the life of our poor from previous conditions associated with pre-civil rights and slavery.
I can’t tell a formerly incarcerated black woman from watts with a daughter in prison that the conditions and policies that currently shut her out from employment, welfare services, tax benefits, voting, and shelter, aren’t considerably similar to that of post-slavery reconstruction. I can’t. I can’t tell a sizable population of afrikan, south asian, and latino undocumented people to give back the social security, the passports, the lattes, the laptops, the privilege, and the respect that they don’t have. I can’t tell the families of those murdered by police, Oscar Grant, Deandre Brunston, Amadou Diallo, 73 year old cancer survivor Bernard Monroe and 7 year old Aiyana Jones that we have somehow progressed beyond the lynch mob mentality and violence of our past.
I can’t tell the watts community that the closing of King Hospital’s emergency services wasn’t an attack on their safety and well being, or that the excess deaths that resulted weren’t in some way a throwback to segregated hospitals that turned away black and brown people in need of care. I cant tell my students and their families to give back their degrees, internships, grants, and jobs that they don’t, and most likely won’t have, given the current situation in their homes and communities. I cant tell a homeless family in the Bronx that “at least they don’t live in _____”, urging them to appreciate their relative geography. And the problem is, there are many more people in their situations than people in places of privilege like ourselves, yet we control more of the discourse than they ever have.
I can’t force my ideas on others, but I can however find the strength to make changes within myself and encourage others to reject or at the very least begin to reflect on what they have, where they are, and at what cost/benefit to their brothers and sisters. I can recognize how the resources afforded to a few can divide our communities. It is tough when people use my self-awareness and owned inconsistencies to tear down the possibility to an informative discussion. Through studying my history, I learned of how people of color (like us) in positions of privilege (voting, spending, employment, education) have sometimes hurt our fellow family by denying the legitimacy of their frustration and dissent. I don’t want to become (or more accurately, continue to be) a part of this problem.
I was on a date with my partner some months ago when we heard a white mother talk to her daughter about Africa. She summed up this continent as the home of savage, cannibalistic people unworthy of respect and devoid of spirit, love, and dignity. Her daughter of high school age seemed receptive to her mother’s offering. I had a choice. I could either walk out and vent about it at a later time, or I could try to dialogue with them and encourage them to learn more about this continent and people. I chose to speak up, and to sum it up, I was disrespected further and then asked, “Well, Are you from Africa?!” The woman could not fathom for the life of her why I was so concerned with her words. She was literally puzzled at my discomfort. She figured that if I wasn’t (recently) from Africa, that I had no business speaking up on the topic.
This is how I feel when I speak of two americas to a group of privileged folks like myself. The responses to my words often look to use my personal privileges to disqualify my words, work, and passion. It seems illogical and puzzling to many of you why I would choose to write and speak out about a lack of progress in America. You say, “Rich, you are too privileged to have anything to say.” It seems that the only expected response to my material and social condition is to embrace it and be glad that I have it, all the while remaining silent about how my benefit is connected to the poverty and devaluing of others. Do I deserve these exclusive privileges that I have? Did I work any harder than the next black man or woman? Should I express my gratitude to a government and ruling class that has afforded me these things when I know what expense they came at? I would like to think that the answer to all these things is “No”.
I can only imagine that this divide is only because it is not commonplace among those of us with privileges to have been exposed to how poor people live in America. I’m not sure how many of us have lived in or even been to government-issue housing half as much as the term “projects” comes out of our mouths, or how many of us have experienced incarceration or the financially, physically, and socially debilitating effects of the policies that target them thereafter. I’m not sure how many of us have lived on the streets, or even been to a shelter. I can’t imagine that we’ve humbled ourselves to the dire situation of our people in neighboring communities if we use words like “ratchet”, “hoodrat”, or “ghetto” to describe them and any of our own actions that deviate from our “refined” formally educated persona.
I write my ideas from experiences, both my own and those I have worked with. I write them because of the work I do in our communities. It is what informs my words. It is what builds in me a disgust for my degrees, my luxuries, my prior trajectory. Specifically, my work with young men and women from inglewood, watts, queens, and the bronx has shown me that progress in America is quite debatable. It has shown me that the assumptions of the quality of life in America are also debatable. And honestly, most everything I write, I have my young brothers and sisters in mind. I think of them as part of my audience, and I cannot with clear conscience begin to tell them that THEIR america is the product of great progress. They read the history of slavery, reconstruction, and jim crow, and find so many similarities to their current living conditions that it seems difficult to try to convince them of how much they have benefited.
I work at a school with dilapidated facilities, few working toilets, a lunch period after school, a “no food in the classroom” policy, few teachers that look like my students, police searches and seizures on campus, surrounded by some of the poorest and most segregated housing projects in new york. Many of these forces and conditions have been ruled unconstitutional, unlawful, inhumane by the courts in our past, but it has not drastically changed the material or social conditions of students and families there.
I teach students to recognize the great people who sacrificed their lives for them and the resulting movements that aimed to secure a better life for them. I am as passionate as you are about our resilient and beautiful predecessors. Our freedom fighters who gave their lives for us. I am constantly quoting them, reflecting on them and sharing them, often with you all in this discussion. But I also recognize that (most of) the fight spans centuries long and continues, not that it has been partially or mostly won. It may be the case that SOME of us are living well, but I find it difficult to call the victories until we all are able to live well.
In honoring someone like MLK or Paul Robeson, be sure to remember their words of warning to the development of the black middle class and the divisive replication of poverty in our communities when the illusion of financial progress can drive a wedge between us. We have potential both to be the ones we’ve been warned about as well as the ones we’ve been waiting for. I believe that the stakes are high in every dialogue, every act of service, and every privilege taken or rejected. The problem is that many of us who have tasted the benefits are assuming and projecting great progress when it is simply not the case for multitudes of Black people here in the states, and around the world.
Hurricane Katrina, anyone? Jena 6? Oscar Grant? The majority of these cases aren’t covered and communicated, and we can sometimes fail to realize how these are symptoms of commonplace conditions, not isolated incidents. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I can’t help but think that those of us most educated (formally), most comfortable, most confident in our words are the ones who are least exposed to and least qualified to speak to progress for Black people, but we (myself included) don’t let that stop us from speaking for the entire group, no matter how misguided we may be.
While we have all been speaking from a place where we enjoy the benefits of American life, my point throughout is to get us to think of another America, the America of those not typing on their laptops and smart phones. The America of a MAJORITY of our people is not like the one of great progress we often speak of. Why don’t we realize that we are the EXCEPTIONS, and not the rule? The rule is not social security benefits, lattes , laptops, passports, vacations, internet. That is reserved for a small population of our people that find favorable conditions, and often is very divisive in terms of community support.
The rule, yes even here in America, is one where police brutality matches that of pre-civil rights mob violence. Where incarceration matches that of the conditions of slavery, where post incarceration life is ruined by harsh policies reminiscent of post-slavery reconstruction, where families are broken and split up by the state, where elites from racial groups are pit against each other in support of policies (section 8, three strikes & crack v cocaine), where basic needs are not met, where thousands upon thousands of excess preventable deaths occur each year.
This is the America that those of us who aren’t poor will do whatever we can to deny it. We will revise and write it away to make ourselves feel at peace. This America is directly related to our lives (my life) of privilege, and it takes a lot of work to reject our (my) benefits (which are causally tied to poverty) and turn the tide on this situation. The America of most of my students, my brothers and sisters, is a lot like the one I describe, and not like the one we privileged folk describe most often.
I hope to better understand why I am falling out of love with the concept of america, the academy, and the idea of recognizing great progress. I will be patient with those around me that continue to share the great stories of our progress, of how far we’ve come. Maybe it is what we have to believe to maintain our sanity, our peace of mind. Maybe it is what we have to do not to fall under the weight of maddening conviction and complicity as people of privilege. It is my hope that little by little, it will overwhelm me, and that in my discomfort, I will fight back so fiercely that I may actually do something worthwhile in my lifetime.