Rahim Islam is a National Speaker and Writer, Convener of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on FaceBook(Rahim Islam) & Twitter (@RahimIslamUC)
Today, Blacks are being urged to forget about our history in this country (i.e. Trans-Atlantic passage, chattel slavery, Jim Crow and KKK, etc.) and the sustained terrorism inflicted on our ancestors. While many Blacks have been able to preserve family and a sense of culture, too many have been hurt by this horrific experience – trauma inflicted at levels unknown to modern history. I ask you, what does generation after generation of repeated trauma produce? We don’t know our history and we don’t truly understand the damage that has been done to us. We also don’t know how we carry generation to generation many of the psychological traits from being enslaved for more than 300 years. Post Traumatic Syndrome coupled with the social pathologies tied to slavery, make it nearly impossible for the masses of our people to break this cycle (they are overwhelmed on a daily basis). We must seek help from those amongst us that have a clear understanding of our problems (structural and cultural) along with the systems that are now keeping the Black community on its knees – contributes to a sense of hopelessness.
Did emancipation make everything even? Are we like an “etch a sketch” where we can just shake and restart with a new and blank page? Unfortunately, as humans, this is not possible. Over the past several years there have been a number of examples when social and psychology experts acknowledged the ramifications of trauma on a group of people, specifically the rash of mass murders (i.e. Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Afghanistan, Baghdad, etc.). Immediately after these horrific events, resources were allocated to provide counseling to family members, relatives and fellow classmates, and the community at large. The reason for the outpouring of support is society knows that experiencing events like these creates emotional and psychological scars that, if left unchecked, become permanent and recovery is nearly impossible. The problems just don’t stop with those victims; many times these scars are passed down to the next generation in the form of social and emotional dysfunction. My question to Black people (especially our most educated) is: If this type of response is done for one isolated event incurred by only a very few people, what should be the response to trauma inflicted on millions of people for more than 300+ years? Or are we not human but animals without human feelings? Our inability to articulate what we feel contributes to our collective hopelessness.
How do we view ourselves? How do we relate to each other? How do we see today and our challenges? Do we believe that we are equal? Do we think that we are inferior? Do we believe that we are free? The answers to these questions and many more are fundamentally tied to our past and our present. Neither is very encouraging. If we look at our past, we must look at the physical slavery (many of us refuse to look back). If we look at today, we must accept that many of us exhibit a type of mental slavery (paralysis) because we fundamentally don’t believe that we can change the outcome – this is tied to hopelessness. Much has been written in recent years about hopelessness amongst the Black community but little research has been conducted on the origins of social disorganization and hopelessness. What are the long-term effects and what do the symptoms look like? There is enough data to suggest that causes of hopelessness among our youth are disruptive and their lack of connectedness to people and institutions. Studies show that our babies are emotionally disconnected evidence by the number of cases of special education diagnosis along with kindergarteners who have been labeled as disruptive.
A number of studies show that over time several variables associated with disruption and disorganization (change in mother figure, exposure to violence, traumatic stress, worry) and connectedness (sense of community, warmth toward mother, religiosity) are positively or negatively associated with increased feelings of hopelessness. Restated, too many of our children are being born into unstable environments and they will be forever impacted by such. Poverty and feelings of hopelessness are linked together with some event suggesting that feelings of hopelessness are a defining characteristic of an “underclass personality”. Stated differently, feelings of hopelessness are a part of growing up poor. There is a direct relationship to poverty and hopelessness and there is a direct relationship to poverty and the enslavement of our people (where you start matters, especially economically). Too many of our children are born in impoverished families and neighborhoods and lag behind developmentally this too contributes to our hopelessness.
Research indicates that poverty is related to perceived feelings of failure and predicts hopelessness.
In addition, the data also attributes the increased levels of violence and violent behavior. Hopelessness, especially amongst our youth, suggests that failure is a part of their future and they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including increased substance use, high risk sexual activity, and accidental injury. I’m not a psychologist or a doctor, but I don’t believe the hype and the myth that Black people are born inferior. With only five to six generations removed from slavery, I’m wise enough to know that in order to fully grasp the magnitude of our current problems, and we must examine the role slavery has played. For those of you who don’t accept slavery as a significant and current damaging theme, you must accept the role that poverty has played in the life of Black people. A large and growing population of Black people has less hope of escaping poverty and the dysfunction and the consequences of poverty than at any time since emancipation and today’s generation is riddle with a heavy sense of hopelessness.
So given these very humbling conditions, what do we do? Most of our people can do nothing. There is a group that has some capacity to provide leadership to our people, but they too are paralyzed because many of them are too busy trying to assimilate into a White America. When I was growing up, all around me there were civil rights fights to get Blacks into different business and government sectors where we didn’t have any representation. Those efforts produced the first Black (i.e. Mayor, Councilperson, CEO, Judge, Police Chief, etc.) and in some situations, like Philadelphia, today every key political position is held by a Black person. The problem is that this group has no idea how they were even elected nor do they connect their current position with the struggle for self-determination of Black people. What’s more staggering is that those these people now serve are predominantly Black people and they have adopted the same strategies that used by their former White predecessors. What does a young teenage Black boy who is now arrested and abused by Black police officers, tried by Black District Attorneys before Black judges, imprisoned and mistreated by Black wardens and prison supervisor? Our young people are extremely confused because they lack the historical context by which they feel the same sting as their parents and grandparents – the difference is that Blacks, in some cases, carry out the punishments. Not only is this intellectually and emotionally challenging – it contributes to our collective sense of hopelessness.
If we didn’t have enough division in our community, because of the growth of government and public sector jobs, our middle class grew over the past 50 years and we are now divided by class. Many in our middle class have been unconsciously been co-opted by the lure of full participation in the American dream. Since the loss of manufacturing jobs in most of the cities where we live, the biggest employers of the Black middle class have been the public and nonprofit sectors. Today, we find ourselves not participating in the private sector in any meaningful way. News Flash! There is a significant and alarming disparity between White and Black middle class – none bigger than “net wealth.” No matter how much you work, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to amass wealth when you’re an hourly employee especially when you work for government or a nonprofit organization. In addition, no matter how well you do, a good job is not transferable to your children. Today, we have the fastest exodus of the middle class and for the first time in our history, our children are doing worst that their parents (a cornerstone of the American way).
Is it just a coincidence that while we have had modest growth by one segment of our community while a large segment of our community has worsened both socially and economically? Blacks are still nearly completely absent in the private sector.
If you take the top 5,000 corporations and you examine the number of Board of Directors and CEO Suite Participation (i.e. 10 Decision Makers), you might have nearly 150,000 positions – how many do you think are Black? Guess what, we represent 14 percent of the population but have less than 1 percent participation in these companies. But this is the tip of the iceberg because even when Blacks are working in the private sector – there is a big gap between where they are and being at the top of these organizations (the pump is not primed to change these outcomes for some time over the next 15 – 25 years).
This condition has also withered to anemic numbers the Black Small Business which further ensures that wealth will be more elusive going forward for Black people.
There are several unintended ramifications of this imbalance (public vs. private sector), including, but not limited to the following:
• Blacks not being able to fully utilize government for the self-determination of its people – this was the intention of the movement;
• Blacks increase government employee connected Blacks to a skewed political process. Black politics were compromised by interest of government employees;
• Blacks increase government employees now connected to the union movement and its activities which were not necessarily aligned with the Black agenda because many unions have systematically shut out Blacks (i.e. building trade unions, etc.);
• Blacks increase as government employees has decreased our entrepreneurial and independent skills. Too many of our talented saw the public sector as a viable career path and the result is that we have too many of our talented having a dependency on government versus a having a private and independent skills to achieve the same outcomes (we have very few who can transfer to the private sector and be successful after being in the public sector);
Blacks increase government employees fundamentally have politically compromised our agenda. Black elected officials have used the power and influence of government employees to advance the agenda of the unions and/or the agenda of elected officials.
Today we have Black elected officials that are hard-pressed to make “hard” and smart decisions that would threaten and/or anger their base (unions) but instead adopt “easy” and stupid decisions that either kicks the problem down the road or that don’t/won’t empower the Black community. We also have our most upper and economically mobile not championing Black independence and in many cases hold disparaging ideas and racist stereotypes about our people (i.e. violent, lazy, criminal, looking for handouts, etc.). And we keep asking why our young people don’t vote – they don’t vote because they see what is going on and they don’t like it. They see how their own people are doing them wrong –political apathy is a sure sign of hopelessness.
In spite of these and other issues that contribute to our sense of hopelessness, there is a pathway that could seriously change the trajectory going forward and it lies in our ability to unite – I call it “functional’ unity. Much of our hopelessness is captured in the fear we inherited, and what we see on a daily basis. The last couple of weeks, I’ve attended several meetings regarding our community and there seems to be a tremendous groundswell of consciousness that “something must be done” to address our issues. The sense of urgency is growing. However; during many of these meetings, the presenters expertly identify our issues and challenges then close with “our community must come together.” However; none have articulated how this is to happen. In fact, there are never any real discussions on what the next steps should be on how we come together. Coming together can’t be the footnote but the entire agenda. Why is this so difficult? Why is this so elusive? Let me very blunt and ask you – who’s going to save the Black man in America, if not ourselves?
There is no other group, species, or higher power that will do the work on behalf of Black people and Black children – but Black people. Yes those same Black people that you critique at every level and fundamentally have relegated to the lowest level; those same Black people you don’t trust; and yes those same Black people you call “nigger” – that nigger ain’t …. (fill in the blank). We must stop looking for the faults and the negatives in our people (we all have them) that give you a reason (excuse) from not locking arms together with your brother. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King stated that our power lies in our unity and our leaders must lead by example. Those that consider themselves leaders must come together and create a “table” where we can begin to discuss these issues. In Philadelphia, I’ve been leading an effort to organize our community call “The Philadelphia Community of Leaders (PCOL).” PCOL is an attempt to unite our community and place the strategies of organizing and mobilizing of our people at the forefront. Going forward, I will keep you posted.