Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.
Martin Luther King, III
There is an important conversation taking place across the nation regarding being Black in America. It may be characterized by three questions Blacks seem to be asking: From where have we come? Where are we now? And, where do we go from here? CNN’s “Black in America“ documentary is a fresh and compelling entry, focusing more on the second question than on the others. One very noticeable thing about the documentary is that it joins a new cast of characters, from academicians to journalists, entertainers to everyday citizens, who are not the faces and voices traditionally associated with the subject.
This crew, colorful and articulate, is empowered by 24/7 cable news and the unfettered reach of the Internet. They are a new generation of thinkers and doers, impatient with the status quo, who feel “the fierce urgency of now.” They are telling of a tectonic change in the plates that undergird our long-held understandings of being Black in America. And, they are challenged by the opportunities most ardently symbolized in the remarkable story unfolding in this year’s presidential election.
But, not so new is the “now-not yet” tension one feels observing being Black in America today. During the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century, my father wrote eloquently of a similar anxiety in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Then the tension was between African Americans’ “now”, who wanted speedy redress to segregation, and many whites’ “not yet”, particularly, among the clergy, who protested the Movement’s demands for immediate remedies as untimely.
In today’s tension, the “now” recognizes a plethora of possibilities for achieving the American Dream. It beckons those adequately prepared to claim them. But the “not yet” realizes the obstacles that render the possibilities beyond the reach of those deprived. In the mid-twentieth century, that deprivation was largely made possible legally. At the beginning of this century, the deprivation is structural.
Perhaps even more interesting is that the tension then was principally between black and white communities. Today, it is also significantly within their communities, both black and white. There is vigorous and healthy debate in each group regarding the causes and effects of high unemployment and incarceration on the one hand and low test scores and two-parent households on the other. The conversation often heats up when the subject turns to who’s responsible.
While it can be helpful to isolate the issues of being Black in America, we must be careful not to stigmatize the group. The challenges and opportunities that African Americans face are the same ones available to and confronting Americans from all walks of life, notwithstanding the disproportionate gatherings of Blacks on the high end of the challenges and the low end of opportunities, which makes their chances as a group less likely to realize the American Dream.
That brings us full circle on the current conversation regarding Blacks in America. Among the many questions, too many to cover in this writing, is whether their circumstances are solely the result of historical causes imposed by outside forces. Are other, contemporary, sources the root cause of the obstacles? What responsibility do African Americans have, individually and collectively, to remedy the problems they confront? Does the broader community have any responsibility? Stated more simply, are the good and bad things that happen to African Americans, individually and as a group, of their own making and, therefore, their sole responsibility? These are important questions that must be answered.
In that same letter to the clergy of Birmingham, my father was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's observation that groups are more immoral than individuals. If that is so, are they also more irresponsible and, inversely, responsible? There seems to me to be a connection between immorality and irresponsibility/morality and responsibility. This was a point not only implied in the Birmingham letter, but also throughout my father’s sermons and writings. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” The saying is true: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In our nation, if one link of our community is fragile, we all have a responsibility to help shore it up; if, we are going to truly be e pluribus unum, the United States of America.
Over the coming months, a gathering of organizations along with Realizing the Dream, Inc., a new nonprofit I founded, will continue this conversation in a series of summits and related activities. Our website is www.realizingthedream.org. I hope you will join us as we seek to answer these questions and work together to realize the dream.