While I was recently guest-hosting a radio program, phone lines lit up with listeners struggling to understand conditions at historically black Hampton University, where students are fighting with school leaders over basic quality-of-life issues, including improvements to campus facilities, food services, and addressing how sexual assault is handled by the administration.
As activists described intensifying scenes on campus, conversations on the general state of historically black colleges and universities took a jarring turn as some callers (audibly all African American) justified the gritty circumstances on predominantly black campuses. Not all felt that way. But there was a sizable and vocal minority who seemed to think the challenges added value. “It’s supposed to be tough like that, whether it’s being on [fraternity] line or dealing with schools that have fewer resources anyway,” one caller shot back.
I’ve heard that sentiment before, but I still find it troubling. African Americans, especially younger ones, face monstrous, systemic oppression from birth. With HBCU enrollment soaring in recent years as fresh trends of racial polarization and hostility rise, black students should expect “safe havens” – so why would black-run institutions be any less that? (Hampton’s not the only black university dealing with tough issues that impact young black people: A student uprising at Howard University pointed out similar issues, as well as allegations of embezzled financial aid funds.)
It’s no secret that the black community is under assault, habitually absorbing direct and sometimes fatal blows to civil rights, voting rights, and quality of life. These days, the blows have re-accelerated in ways unseen since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago this week.
One major difference between now and then: The black human condition is now the subject of much research, study, and chin-rubbing. We’re seeing grim trends unfold before our eyes through streams of hard data, whether they’re in the New York Times (where it was recently reported that even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America) or a Brookings report (that concluded that black men born to low-income parents are much more likely to end up with a low individual income than black women, white women, and — especially — white men).
It is useful to see these data because they objectively confirm what African Americans have known all along. But it’s frustrating, because the black community is, increasingly, paralyzed by a sense of powerlessness.
Our outrage is loud and palpable — but how constructively is it channeled these days?
Many communities — including black Philadelphia — seem to grudgingly accept conditions as either given or unsolvable. Black Philly poverty and low wage growth remain staggeringly high, homicide rates rise, health indices stifling, and low-income Philly tenants, as an example, spend nearly 60 percent of their income on rent alone while facing eviction rates four times more than any demographic. This situation plays out all too frequently in metropolitan black communities nationwide.
The exact same indicators that left Dr. King deeply distressed in his last days, from housing and employment to crime and pollution, can be left to languish by the very communities stricken with them today.
We can’t assume cosmetic achievement (the job, the house, and the car) is the height of community progress.
Nor can the extent of any resistance merely be fist-shaking and hashtag anger.
We should, instead, presume that our agency can only be controlled by the choices we are making, and that what we are taking is unified steps toward action.
Protest over Stephon Clark’s death, for example, shouldn’t just shut down a City Council meeting or two; Sacramento citizens should protest with their votes and oust that City Council – which has a primary election in June.
The plight of black men raised in poverty, 54 percent staying in it, shouldn’t be accepted as social norm; organizations, churches, and neighborhoods should be unified in muscled “state of emergency” campaigns.
And when four lives are lost in a crumbling North Philly boarding house owned by a slumlord long known to evade city regulators and federal probes, the city’s black political and advocacy class shouldn’t just shrug; community leaders, in tandem with elected officials, should be immediately moved to relentless, creative action plans that can once and for all solve Philadelphia’s affordable-living crisis.
The black experience should not be defined by conforming to routine, soul-crushing struggles. It should be a collective choice toward fresh ideas and creative community revitalization. Compared with 50 years before, we now have access to tangible resources that we did not have before, so all is not lost. Despite African Americans’ seeing the loss of half of their net worth during the recession, we still have a middle class and we can tout more than 11,000 black elected officials on the local, state, and federal level since the inception of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
We can’t wait for racism to draw back into the shadows. Since we are living these conditions, none of this should happen on our watch.
Charles D. Ellison is host of “Reality Check,” a daily public affairs program on WURD radio (96.1FM/900AM in Philadelphia). He is also principal of Washington-based B|E Strategy, the Washington correspondent to the Philadelphia Tribune, and a contributor to Philadelphia Citizen. @ellisonreport.