The drumbeat of race grows louder. Now legislation is being introduced in the Congress to “protect” blacks from police brutality, a response to the demonstrations following the acquittal of four white New York City police officers in the Diallo case. Members of the Black Caucus and the civil rights community are demanding funds to support a search for evidence of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.
At the same time, a national mobilization is under way to boycott the state of South Carolina unless the Confederate battle flag is removed from the state capitol. And news broadcasts and talk shows are competing to do programs on race in the United States, as though this were the foremost issue confronting black America today.
Racial discrimination continues to be a major problem in the United States. But for large segments of black America, it is not the most important issue, and continued escalation of the race issue is deflecting attention and resources away from many more crucial problems confronting blacks. Perhaps most importantly, the focus on the race issue by leaders in the black community threatens to squander the moral capitol that was won at such cost by the civil rights movement.
There was a time when civil rights leaders commanded moral authority because on issues of social policy they were morally consistent. Martin Luther King opposed the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. But he opposed, with equal vigor, the retaliatory violence of the Black Panther party. Even when King was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover with illegal wire taps and other forms of surveillance, he never used the precious fabric of the civil rights movement as a protective shield against these personal assaults. He understood that the welfare of blacks was far more important than any assault upon himself.
Those who speak today in King’s name, like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, do not command the same moral authority as he did even when they invoke his name. King and those other great civil rights leaders told black America what it should do to command the respect not only of its own people but that of white America. And that was to carry oneself with dignity, even in the face of assault. There was to be a single standard of justice, to be applied equally to all. That was the fundamental principle of nonviolence, and it captured the moral high ground.
Today, the self-styled leaders of the civil rights movement direct all their attention to pointing the accusing finger at white America. They have no advice or counsel for what black America must do for itself. They not only are silent about those who commit acts of hostility against whites or other blacks, but in fact defend black officials who abuse their powers and flaunt the law with claims that they are “targeted.”
When, as happened a few weeks ago, a black person goes on a rampage and kills innocent whites, the so-called champions of civil rights are silent. They are silent about the fact that 9,000 blacks are killed each year at the hands of other blacks. As one person said, they use race as a spear against whites and a shield against responsibility, even in their behavior toward other blacks.
If these civil rights leaders were really concerned about reducing black deaths, then they should turn their time and attention to this huge waste of life even in cities controlled by black politicians, where the social-service providers, police officers, officers of the court and the juries are predominately black. According to Jet magazine, there are, on average, nine blacks killed by white police officers in a year’s time compared with 9,000 black-on-black deaths.
The danger is, by only putting attention on what whites are doing to blacks, we ignore the more crucial questions of what blacks are doing to blacks. If racism were the principle challenge facing black America today, when why do we have, coexisting in a city like Washington, a situation where we have the highest black median income anywhere in the nation, the largest expenditures on poverty programs in 21 categories, with 70 percent of the work force black professionals, and yet have the lowest life expectancy for children anywhere in the Western Hemisphere? How does the evil hand of racism explain this phenomenon?
The other danger is that we will not direct our attention to very successful efforts to save black lives, like that of Sister Falaka Fattah in Philadelphia, who helped reduce that city’s black youth gang violence from an average of 40 deaths per year to less than two.
There are solutions to the bloodshed that is draining away the life of black youths. In places like Washington’s Benning Terrace, and in Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles and Indianapolis, there are dramatic examples of how legitimate neighborhood leaders have successfully attacked the enemy within the black community. They have done this by dedicating their lives and transforming the hearts and therefore the attitudes, and as a consequence the behavior of youthful predators who now act as ambassadors of peace.
If a mother needed heart surgery, and her son needed new tires for his car, just because he chooses to pay for his mother’s heart surgery doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need new tires. The question is, what should be his priorities?
What are our priorities? Is our concern black deaths? Or is the concern white racism? Where should we be investing our time and resources?
Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.