Michael Brown and the Black Conundrum | THE POLITICUS

Michael Brown and the Black Conundrum

In the great intra divide within the black community lies a conundrum of identity. Who are we? In the last few decades sparked by rap, hip-hop and proponents of what is called Neo Soul there seemed to be resurgence of blackness and black pride. The teachings of the late John Henric Clark a self-proclaimed disciple of the African revolutionary thinker Cheikh Anta Diop was must see for many in the 90’s and early 2000s. Soon to follow were the mythical DVD series titled Hidden Colors, which had an underground following of its own. Thus scores of young blacks could speak on the mysteries of Africa, the cruelty of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, yet prison incarceration, unemployment, and other measurements, our protestations notwithstanding, were not good. Others proposed putting down the Metu Neter in favor of Steven Covey. Believing as I do in the liberation that comes from personal and community empowerment, I say why not read both. The August 9th shooting of Michael Brown, and its angry aftermath, brings those parallel and often conflicting perspectives back to the forefront.

Recently, I sat in a PBS taping hosted by Gwen Ifil titled After Ferguson, the title suggesting that a group of individuals in a room could define at best, what would, could, or should happen next. As the group watched a prerecorded interview that included Jason L. Riley an African American, and a Wall Street Journal contributor I could see the battle lines being drawn. Many in the audience were not aware of his recent book, which has sparked debate titled Please Stop Helping us!  How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed. Thus as Mr. Riley begun his diatribe on black “criminalized” youth who need to as a starting proposition, to pull their pants up, the collective groan in the audience was palpable. Yet in those words and those groans the chasm within the African American community lay exposed much the way Michael Brown’s corpse did that awful Saturday afternoon.

In the months after the George Zimmerman verdict and the shooting of Michael Brown, I wondered out loud and privately why wasn’t there a similar outcry when black men die at the hands of other black men. Well the rapper Tef Poe also in the audience offered this answer saying ostensibly, “before we talk about black on black crime, we should talk about white on white crime” The crowd roared. I recently travelled to Paris, and in the Palace of Versailles there are images on the ceiling that depict wars, and death.  Wars, and death that for nearly 2000 years would represent white on white carnage on that continent. So I get it – white people have a long history of fratricide.  But how does that knowledge help me in 2014?  How does that knowledge serve Michael Brown, and moreover, how does that knowledge assist or inform a black community seemingly too split on critical communal stratagems to find the wherewithal to muster a better than adequate defense of it’s male population. 

Meanwhile great American cities like Chicago are rife with black on black homicides. So are we as Tef Poe and others suggest, supposed to ignore the tears of black mothers because their killers were black and not white men with badges? I suggest that Mr. Riley’s insertion of black accountability in the discussion of Michael Brown’s shooting was inappropriate as well because it assumes – what supporters of Darren Wilson would have you believe, that this was a righteous shoot due to some inherent criminality on the behalf of Michael Brown, an assertion yet to be proven. So wither the black nation? Are we to remain a fractured community with half of us demanding justice, while ignoring accountability, and the other half saying pull your pants up while turning a blind eye to what I call an existential crisis – the war on black males. The shooting of Michael Brown, coupled with the death of Eric Garner in New York City and John Crawford III in the Beavercreek Wal-Mart have conspired to elevate activists, organizers, and generally the entire social justice network from the newly minted Dream Defenders to the old guard The Southern Poverty Law Center.

At the same PBS After Ferguson taping, the room was filled with community leaders many who have carved out names for themselves working the front lines of this crisis. The collateral damage that stemmed from the shooting of Michael Brown reveals a noxious mix of polices ranging from the insidious nature of racial profiling, the militarization of urban police forces and the pernicious manner in which traffic fines, both moving and non moving fines became defacto ATM machines for many small municipalities often targeting and preying on the poor. Yet where was the angst, and protests on these issues prior to Michael Brown’s death? One would think if there was a fraction of proactivity on the part of many in that room a lot of the issues/demands would already be in place. In 2001 Timothy Thomas was gunned down in Cincinnati by a police officer which unleashed the furies – that was nearly 15 years ago – to me it is exhibit A of a dormant, reactive national leadership style that fails to make good use of the lessons gleaned from Cincinnati.

At yet another local “Ferguson” town hall meeting a mother spoke on how she consistently gives her sons the “what to do” and “what do say” when stopped by the police speech. A friend of mine that has had a history of “driving dirty” meaning lacking required documentation i.e. a driver’s license, insurance or up to date vehicle registration, told me he was moving to “North County” an area of the St. Louis metropolitan area rife with those heretofore mentioned municipalities. My first question to him was, not about his new home, or school district for his children, but “are you driving dirty or clean?” These examples how we must take our survival in our own hands, and not merely default to protesting after another body grows cold.

We have to be clear – as a black man who has seen racial profiling up close too many times, my first priority when encountering police officers is to leave that encounter intact. Not having warrants, not driving dirty, not being involved even tangentially to any criminal situation goes a long way toward that goal. We as a community concerned about our black men, can ill afford to place the entire burden of change on systems and institutions that we do not trust to do the right thing. I agree that we must be vigilant but we must also be proactive, and protective – any encounter with a police office has the potential to become fatal, if a young black man’s civil rights are violated, I want that young man to be able to walk away from that encounter and fight it on a different turf, not to have his battle waged in absentia as he lies in a casket.

What is absent in many communities is a lack of empowerment, as empowerment in my view leads to proactive change. Conversely a lack of power forces communities to react. Under the adage nature abhors a vacuum, the looting, and burning that followed the shooting of Michael Brown effectively was a dis-empowered community filling the leadership void the best way and perhaps only way they knew how to. I am clear that there is a war on black males, and I am clear that in order to combat it we as a community can ill afford to be so “pro black” or so anti “the system” that we “sleep” on our own accountability. For there is another form of blackness and another system in play, and a system of personal responsibility, a system of empowerment, a system that stems from a vision of black greatness.

I would offer this thought, white supremacy and the systems that support it like the criminal justice system cannot exist where greatness permeates the black culture. Simply put, a black community vested in its own greatness would systemically rise above the traps and tricks that led us into poverty, incarceration and underperforming.  A nation of greatness would in my estimation be able to rally against injustice while at the same time eradicating ourselves of self inflicted wounds and self-defeating life style choices. Which leaves me to wonder if those who push for justice and seemingly tone deaf to our own need for accountability and empowerment – do so because perhaps a nation of empowered black folks wouldn’t need them.  They often use the tired and lame excuse that to suggest that the African American community bring their “A” game is effectively blaming the victim for their circumstances. 

I see it differently, fighting the war of injustice, inequality, etc. on two fronts, is the most effective, most adult, most empowered approach. The shadows of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, W.E. B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglass loom large over the African American community, symbols of black power, symbols of black greatness, and yes symbols of black empowerment. In 2014 one can only wonder along with the thousands of black men we buried, have we buried our own sense of power and despite a history of greatness we are now afraid of our own shadows.