The black-on-black unpleasant truths

By ROBERT L. WOODSON SR.| May 28, 2015

What distinguishes the recent unrest in Baltimore from other protests around the country over deadly encounters with police is the difficulty protest organizers are having linking the death of Freddie Gray to his race.

From Ferguson to Milwaukee to Madison, “Black Lives Matter” has been the rallying cry. Because Baltimore’s mayor, police commissioner and half of the 3,000-member police force are black, including three of the six officers indicted in Gray’s death, there seems to be confusion about where to assign blame. But there is little confusion about where to direct anger.

Many black activists complain that little has improved for blacks in West Baltimore since the 1968 riots. They used the conditions of poor blacks to make the case for voting rights that would help put middle-class, college-educated blacks in positions of power and offer a better way forward for all blacks. 

However, five decades of civil rights legislation, anti-poverty programs and community renewal initiatives have not eased the persistent hopelessness that exists in many low-income black communities, including Milwaukee. Why not?

It is time to explore some unpleasant truths. The seeds of distrust were planted even back then as to whether the interests of poor blacks were sacrificed by their new black representatives, in government and in social service businesses. Poor blacks have been the victims of a cruel bait-and-switch game, where the demographics of all blacks were used as the bait; when resources arrived, the bulk of them went to middle-class providers. 

If race were the primary culprit in injustice and poverty, why are poor blacks no better off in institutions run by their own people, including city governments and public schools? If government safety net programs were the answer, why has $20 trillion spent on the programs over 50 years failed to improve the lot of the poor? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the highest form of maturity is the ability to be self-critical. Black America needs a serious self-examination.

What are possible solutions?

Before external resources will be effective in improving and rebuilding blighted areas, there must be improvements in the attitudes of young people living there. This attitude overhaul should be led by leaders from within the community, not outside professionals.

One example of indigenous community leadership is Munir Bahar, founder of COR Community and the 300 Men March movement. His group gives moral guidance and character coaching to hundreds of at-risk kids in Baltimore. During the recent riots, black members of the 300 Men March stood between police and rioters and helped maintain order. The fact that they could prevent young rioters from looting without injury to themselves means they have the trust of the youths and, with that trust, moral authority.

They and other indigenous leaders can be powerful agents of moral and spiritual redemption and transformation. They are but a few of the healing agents in troubled communities called upon in times of crisis but ignored when it comes to funding intervention efforts. They are the community antibodies that if properly recognized and resourced could become a neighborhood-wide immune system.

Before an economic infrastructure such as a CVS pharmacy is brought in, investment must be made in human capital development so that people in the community appreciate the importance of the businesses. When this occurs, people will protect businesses in their community, not destroy them.

Black America needs a one-year moratorium on complaining about what white people have done to us and look instead at the enemy within. What could we be doing more for ourselves if outsiders were not there to help? In other words, we need to apply old values that successfully served blacks in the past when the challenges were much worse. Focus on our strengths instead of our weaknesses. There are powerful examples of strengths even in the troubled neighborhoods of Baltimore.

Over the past 35 years, the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has demonstrated that the answer to the despair of inner city blacks is to help them become agents of their own deliverance. Even in the most crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhoods, there are people who manage to thrive. They represent community antibodies.

How do we find these healing agents? How can they expand to become an immune system? How and where do they exercise influence over others in their community?

We go into barber shops, beauty salons and grocery stores and ask people whom they turn to in times of trouble. Many will identify the same people. When you knock on their doors and ask why they are sought out, you will find that they have given freely of themselves to their neighborhoods. They will direct you to others like themselves down the block, up the street or across town. When you assemble them and help their individual and collective needs, the seeds of a grass-roots movement are planted, which can transform an entire community.

Examples abound among the groups CNE has helped to organize and to prosper. In Milwaukee, CNE has operated a successful violence intervention program that employs over 75 young adults in 11 public high and middle schools. In Washington, D.C., public housing resident management leader Kimi Gray made national headlines by transforming her crime-ridden neighborhood into one of the safest over a 10-year period. Bertha Gilkey did the same in St. Louis.

What these local healing agents have in common is the moral authority they exercise because of the trust from disaffected youths. These silent heroes represent potential new leadership to bring about the restoration of communities. What they need is public and private investment – not just money, but skills training and administrative guidance.

The rebuilding of any community has to begin with the restoration of its civic infrastructure. That means instilling personal responsibility, thrift and accountability. When investment in human capital development occurs, only then can economic development prosper.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. As a civil rights activist, Woodson led a group of community leaders that helped prevent the loss of lives and property in his hometown of Westchester, Pa., during the 1960s riots following the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This column represents his personal opinion.

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