As I sit here still waiting on my 40 acres and a mule, I’ve been reflecting on a few things that have been bumping around in my head. I want to have one of those brother to brother conversations. I’m not saying that white folks are excluded from this conversation, but this is a family matter. Plus, the last thing we need is another brother pointing the finger at the black community in front of white folks. It smacks more of them staring down their nose in judgment of the community while seeking white folks approval than it does truly engaging in conversation.

That being said, I was at the Emergent Conference and a pastor made a comment that stuck with me. He wondered aloud about whether the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, once Pharaoh released them, in order to get the slave mentality out of their minds and souls. It was a throwaway line, however, the thought has stayed with me. The Israelites had been enslaved for generations and that slave mentality, the culture of oppression, became ingrained in their very scarred souls, part of the character of who they were. The mentality insinuated itself as part and parcel of their identity. So when I carry the thought forward, if in 1965 black people were civilly “set free”, have we been wandering to get the “back of the bus” mentality free from our souls? In other words, it’s 2005, now what?

Part of my musings revolve around us continuing the real, honest discussion going on in barber shops and churches across the land in order to search for answers to how we can reclaim our communities. I feel like an old man complaining about today’s youth. Maybe I’m mis-remembering the past, but it seems to me that there was a time when black folks lived together in community. Sure, this was a holdover of segregation and the failed experiment known as housing projects, however, the history of America includes its share of regrets and hard examination at itself. The country was founded on a central hypocrisy of all men being created equal, except for its slaves; and that hypocrisy eventuated in our Civil War. Later, black people could fight and die for the rights of others in World War II, and not have their own at home; and that eventuated in the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights movement was a direct result of people working together not asking for civil rights, but demanding it. Not wanting anything from the government, but freedom and equal footing to pursue the American dream. Though there had always been poverty and there had always been racism, we had managed to keep our families relatively intact and thrive. Yet something in my gut fears that we are at a cultural crossroads.

““So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify … against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.” Malachi 3:5

How we treat the poor defines us as a culture and as a country. I believe that government needs to assist those unable to take care of themselves, but is that where we are and what we’ve been reduced to? I have to be honest in saying that a system that supports dependency without accountability hurts any community, especially a community burdened by institutionalized racism. The programs on the surface seem to help poor people. The intentions were good, but the solution and remedy was short-sighted.

I’m not going to reduce this to a political discussion. We give too much credence to the idea of being able to legislate our problems away; trusting too much in laws and too little in the corrupt nature of man. Republicans are going to (continue to) look racist if they simply scrap programs for the poor without having a different plan to replace it with. Democrats are going to (continue to) enable this co-dependent relationship that keeps a disproportionate amount of us suckling at the government’s teat. Some might say that welfare acts like a crutch and inhibits people to never try walking without the crutch. We all got anecdotes. For every person that tells me tales of the near-mythological (and seemingly ubiquitous) welfare queen, I can spin one of the person who has to go totally on assistance because their minimum wage job qualifies them as making too much money so their child care and rent assistance are dropped. Stepping on the necks of the poor all the while telling them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. All of this is an exercise in futility because you can’t just throw money at folks as the cure for poverty.

We need better, more comprehensive strategies for dealing with poverty, but just telling people to “bootstrap”is BS and elitist: pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is great, if you have boots. Especially in a system of oppression with people who have nothing and may possibly have never in their lives.

The government does have a role to play. In spending on education. In supporting the working poor in their efforts to pull themselves up. Our responsibility is to value education. We have a history as scientists, artists, business people, and explorers. More than being athletes, entertainers or drug dealers, education is the best sure route out of poverty.

While it may be intellectually easy to blame white folks and racism, we have room to study our own mirrors. At some point, things changed, and we started embracing a posture of victimhood. Maybe it developed during the push for integration, or better said, assimilation. More subtle than that, I suspect that there was a buy in to a different set of modern, American values. Worse still, ghetto values became our defining values. I didn’t disagree with Kanye West when he said that the government didn’t care about black people, but judging from how we survive by any means necessary–robbing, killing, peddling poisons to one another–black people don’t care about black people either.

Some values creep into every aspect of our lives. Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. Individualism, this “me first” narcissism which fragments community, is only one modern, American value that we as a people have bought into.

Another is a rampant materialism that shrivels peoples souls and empties their lives. We, like any good Americans, are discontent consumers, constantly on the move to satisfy our inner longings. If you dangle and celebrate bling, people will strive for bling; as if that’s something worth striving for. If I turn on rap videos, we have what passes for hip hop values marketed to us. The advertising, which is what videos are, fuels our consumeristic mentalities, generating or nurturing a pursuit of designer labels. We want the cars, the house, the clothes, the jewels, the gear, not realizing that we chase an illusion. This driving materialism perpetuates a sense of the need for immediate gratification, perhaps even a sense of entitlement, as far too many of us are duped into pursuing these things. Often we conveniently forget or are not willing to realize the work needed to get these things. This is not just a black thing, but an American culture thing. You only have to casually watch American Idol to see how
few people love singing, but so many more want the ticket to fame and the trappings of celebrity.

The ghetto mentality that far too often defines “real” blackness rears its head in ways beyond those seen in rap videos. I suspect that other consequences of our posture of victimhood involve a collapse in our personal values. We devalue education in lieu of a quick ticket to the trappings of wealth. We esteem prison life and values. We devalue our women, sex, and relationships (as if having babies made us men; or women, for that matter). Judging by many of those aforementioned videos (and too many tv shows) we’re still cooning for massa’s amusement. The ghetto became something to strive for in order to maintain realness rather than a place to get out from. Black people have always lived in “projects” … it’s just that before people didn’t stay there. I often wonder when the civil rights movement just stopped, and when so many inner-city poor black people lost hope of getting out, unless it was from the projects to the high life, as an athlete or entertainer. Or convict. I’ll ask it again: when the hell did a bid in prison become something to celebrate? It’s a tragedy to be wept over, not accepted (nor the sensibilities of prison life mirrored). For people who have nothing, material belongings mark our significance. Part of reclaiming the importance of education would help in understanding money and hopefully eliminate the silliness of having expensive cars in front of run down housing. I don’t think these values work for anyone, black or white.

Gold chains are still chains.

I’m tired of the blame game, of spending our time complaining when we could be doing. We may feel that we’re owed something, but it’s not coming. Yes, there is room to blame the government and institutional racism in America. (Some folks might be in denial about the reality of white privilege, but enslavement and discrimination for nearly 400 years kind of rigs the playing field in terms of built-in advantages.) However, in the final analysis, that’s never stopped us before.

What I don’t want to be is one of these middle class brothers who either sit in judgment of the poor, or worse, forget them cause “I’ve got mine.” I have a lot of questions and too little answers. But my heart aches black people aches in ways that are beyond words when I see the plight of our own in the easily forgotten ghettos, and the loss of hope I see in the eyes of our young. I don’t throw my hands in the air and not care. As we look ahead, we need to examine ourselves and remember the past. I have responsibility to and for myself as a man to be the best man, father, and husband I can be. I have responsibilities to my community, to not forget where we’ve been, to not write off my brothers and sisters once I “make it” and to give back by helping others along.

In the mean time, I’ll keep checking my mailbox for my reparations check.