It has been more than 40 years since the March on Washington and what could be described as the "height" of the Civil Rights movement. Soon after Martin L. King, Jr. described his "dream," Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After some 400 years of slavery and nearly 100 years under Jim Crow, America was finally on its way to practicing the true democracy its founding fathers described -- particularly as illuminated in Thomas Jefferson's words, which said, "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Chief among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
African-Americans, who were discarded when those word were first written, suddenly were now legally able to reclaim the rights the Emancipation Proclamation and the era of Reconstruction could not provide. When Manny Marable, the prominent African-American Historian professor at Columbia University was asked to describe the state of Black America 40 years since that march on Washington he said, "it is the best of times and the worst of times, at the same time."
That description best illustrates the tale of two classes of one race. Since the march on Washington there are more Black millionaires and white collar executives -- minorities and women now are CEOs of 15-percent of the Fortune 100 companies -- chief among these are Ken Chenault at American Express and Dick Parsons at Time Warner. More blacks are attending college and going on to enter fields once seen as "white only." The Black Middle Class is the post-success story of the Civil Rights era.
Yet, those signs of progress cannot overshadow the 10% unemployment in the black community, the economic divide in salary, home ownership and wealth, as well as the deteriorating environment of urban schools where in places like New York City inner city students receive about $2000 less than their suburban counterparts.
The best of times and the worst of times indeed.
For those who dwell in the best of times for the black community, it is incumbent upon them to ensure the rising tide lifts all boats. For the seventh time, Tavis Smiley, a PBS talk-show host, tried to spotlight the growing gap, which hinders so many African-Americans at his annual "State of Black America" seminar.
This year the all-day discussion was held in Houston, Texas and was -- as all of them have been -- a sold out affair. While some see this as a sign of positive effort on the side of the African-American community -- it seems to be an exercise in preaching to the choir.
This year's seminar focused on a newly created "Covenant with Black America" in which the detailed 10 issues for a better Black community. However, those who probably needed to hear the insight of people like Cornell West the most were the victims of the very economic divide those who attended the event talked about for eight hours.
It is hard for me to contemplate why it costs $20 per person to attend this event. Especially when it was hosted by at least one person and attended by others who could without a doubt afford to rent any facility they wanted or use their network of contacts to persuade the venue to be organized through philanthropy. Thereby opening the venue to those who probably need a covenant the most.
According the the U.S. Census Bureau ten percent of the nations poor live in Texas. In Houston some 15 percent of people live in poverty and the median income is just over $35,000. Surely there could've been space for some cheap or charity seats for these disenfranchised residents.
For the poor single mother who works 60 hours a week to place food on the table for her child to eat, the choice between buying a few groceries or purchasing a ticket to an event becomes no choice at all. Even more disturbing to this author is the fact that the "Covenant with Black America" has actually been published into a 270-plus page book and made available via amazon.com for $12.00 --plus shipping and handling.
While the increasingly expanding black middle class can afford this book and pay with a simple credit card, the availability for those disenfranchised members of the black community the access is increasingly limited. Not only do those who are living in the worst of times have difficulty finding the $12 to spare but where do they find a computer or even a credit card to purchase the book if they had the money?
Some may see this argument as being too cynical, but it clearly illustrates the bottom-line question: who is the covenant for? Surely it can't be for all of Black America because all of Black America don't have access to it or even heard of its existence.
When you're fighting for survival -- luxuries such as caring about the greater society becomes a burden of those with the free time and income to ponder such solutions.
Even the Covenant itself seems a bit classist. For those who aren't familiar with the ten covenants ,there are a few which seem to have been created in a vacuum. For example, the first covenant suggest the right to "secure the right to health care and well-being." Certainly everyone has the right to health care -- the problem is some 30 million Americans -- not just blacks-- go through the day without it because they can't afford it nor does the low-wage job they work provide it for them.
The second covenant focuses on "establishing a public education system in which all our children achieve at a high level." This should be the goal of all Americans, but yet we cannot look to the federal government to improve our schools with more funding when we fail to hold our local districts to the fire by hiring inadequate administrators and protecting unqualified and worse uncertified teachers.
The sixth covenant says Black America must claim our democracy -- but how can Black America re-claim something it fails to participate in. Black voter turnout in the last two presidential elections was still disproportionately low and the rate of black registration lags behind the national average. Black America must participate in the process if it is going to demand something from its politicians.
The greater problem with each of these is they seem to broad to wrap any size arms around. Everyone want to have health care, good schools and an active electorate -- these are black people's issues these are American ones.
But the devil is in the details and perhaps somewhere in those valuable pages of the "Covenant" there are clear solutions to these issues. It is a commendable act for Smiley and his host of panelist to take time out of their lives to organize such a program. Without question, there are tremendous issues, which Black America must face and face soon. But while we use energy to fight for former felons voting rights, we ignore the fact the next generation of black voters are sitting on the sidelines -- clueless to the impact their pull of the lever might provide.
The covenant Tavis moderated through this week may be a useful tool for the continued progress of Black America; however, I'm just not sure if the progress being focused on will make those living the best of times better at the expense of the worst-- just try to live.
If the covenant doesn't assist in making all of Black America better -- the cost in the long term may be too great for any of us to pay.
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