Un-Making A Contented Slave

Un-Making A Contented Slave

“I have observed this in my experience of slavery, — that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.”

—Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

Most people would agree that Obama’s presidency was neither a major victory for African-Americans nor a complete failure. One thing is certain: a number of major events took place over the course of his two terms in office (from the federal lawsuits against major banks that discriminated against Black and brown homebuyers, to the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice; to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.) that unearthed a deeper need for law enforcement reform and the dire need to address the socio-economic challenges that many young people of color face today.

Civil rights activists and scholars have questioned why living conditions for Black people barely improved under the leadership of our nation’s first Black president whose campaign slogan “Yes, We Can” rang as a promise of it—encouraging Americans to take up the task themselves, to roll up their sleeves, and to be “the change that we seek.”

During Obama’s presidency, a mountain of research emerged demonstrating the nuances of inequality between Black and White Americans, including a racial wealth gap that persists despite educational attainment. Black students who do make it to college often carry twice the level of student loan debt and higher default rates on their loans. Black college graduates not only face higher unemployment rates than White college graduates, Blacks with college degrees have less wealth than White high school dropouts. Researchers also said that in order to close the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites, the average Black household would have to save 100 percent of its income for three consecutive years.

In “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander detailed how prisons have become the latest form of economic and social disenfranchisement for Blacks. Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th,” sought to explain how a racially-biased legal system literally condemned Black youth to modern-day slavery; stripping them of their civil rights and labeling them “other” for the rest of their lives.

DuVernay’s documentary also explored how private companies targeted the prison-industrial complex in search of new business. However, the for-profit prison industry is not the only one cashing in on a Black community divided by class, and one lacking the unified investment in a common theme of economic empowerment.

“I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.”

—Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

In Miami, Fla., last July, OneUnited Bank CEO Teri Williams said African-Americans spend 1.2 trillion dollars annually, but Black-owned businesses only see about two percent of that.

According to a USA Today article published earlier this year, “In 2007, prior to the recession, there were 41 banks with majority African-American ownership. There were 44 in 1986, the year Congress passed a law designating February as National Black History Month. Today, the number of Black-owned banks has fallen to just 23 institutions.”

The article also noted that more than half of Blacks are “either unbanked or underbanked, meaning they supplement their bank account with alternatives such as check cashers.”

During a phone interview with the “FADER,” Williams said that the reality is that Black banks, like OneUnited and all of the Black-owned banks that came before, “were created out of the Civil Rights Movement when the majority of the banks were not accepting us as customers.”

Williams added, “Since then, integration has happened and people may think now we don’t ‘need Black banks,’ but it’s actually the opposite.”

In the same interview, Williams agreed when the FADER reporter noted that, in some ways, economic autonomy is just as important as the protests against police violence in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It goes back to changing our mindset. It’s important for us to do business with each other and work with each other,” said Williams. “To trust each other is a leap we ‘have’ to take. There’s no other way around it.”

There will always be pressure to “look the part,” and wear a Rolex, but surely there is a line to be drawn between looking the part and looking the part to achieve some level of whiteness or some false sense of freedom while sacrificing real freedom and economic independence.

To be the change that we seek, Black people have to do more than just look the part; we have to “Bank Black” and “Buy Black” and invest in our communities.

 

Angelo C. Louw is the Advocacy Officer at Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) and former HIV prevention campaigner at loveLife, South Africa’s largest youth HIV intervention. He is currently a Fulbright/Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow based at the University of Maryland. He writes in his personal capacity.

 

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