Goodbye, Freedom

08/04/2011 07:54 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

Black America is in crisis. In a recent study, the National Urban League reported that almost all the economic gains made by African Americans over the last 30 years have been lost during the Great Recession. Black unemployment now stands at 16.2 percent, harkening back to 1982 when that number stood at a frightening 19.5 percent. Today, among those between the ages of 16 and 19, that figure jumps to a staggering 39.9 percent.

We are witnessing a generation of young African Americans who have little to no experience with steady work. Combined with the loss of "good" manufacturing jobs and draconian cuts in the public sector, the traditional pathways to black middle class life have been blocked by the rubble left in the wake of this economic collapse.

Moreover, recent data about the widening wealth gap between whites and blacks reveal the racial depths of the housing crisis. The median wealth of white households is now 20 times greater than black households. Since the recovery, black home ownership, the National Urban League study reports, "has fallen at three times the rate of white home ownership." Many black folk who once believed that they had finally secured middle class status are experiencing downward mobility; they have lost their homes and jobs, and now many have joined the ranks of the black poor.

This bleak data stand alongside the reality of mass incarceration and chronic disease that envelope many of our communities. One wonders what the future holds.

But the fact of the matter is that for more than half a century, African American unemployment has been twice that of white Americans. The fact is that the mantra of law and order has informed public debate about crime since the Johnson administration; and to be truthful appeals to law and order were a part of widespread efforts to criminalize acts of civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement. The fact is that public education has been failing our children since the Brown decision.

Of course, there was a brief respite during the Clinton years. Black unemployment fell to 7.6 percent in 2000. Many African Americans found themselves leveraging genuine political and economic power. Others languished on the underside of the economic boom. We need only listen to Nas' 1994 classic, Illmatic, or troll for scholarly papers on the black underclass to get a sense of what was going on in the 'hoods of America.

We also need to remember that Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. Both had devastating implications for the immediate and long-term health of our most vulnerable communities.

All of this suggests that the current crisis in Black America must be understood against the backdrop of a longstanding national retreat around the issue of racial inequality. For over thirty years, Republicans have attacked a particular view of government and Democrats have conceded the terms of debate to them. The aim has been to shrink the size of government and to curtail its domestic responsibilities beyond ensuring economic efficiency and military strength. In short, the goal has been to dismantle the welfare state, to implement monetary policies that are more favorable to business interests, and to collapse the meaning of citizen with that of consumer.

In the process, national policies to redress the enduring legacy of our country's racist past and present have been thrown to the trash bin and replaced with appeals to personal responsibility and descriptions of a culture of pathology.

In fact the very language of the black freedom struggle has been used to justify the retreat on the issue of racial inequality. A 1984 Heritage Foundation report noted that "[f]or twenty years, the most important battle in the civil rights field has been for the control of language." Who would define the content of liberty and freedom? The meaning of America itself? Dr. King's dream of a day when all Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character would become a crucial resource in this effort. His words would provide the frame for a color-blind America -- a post-racial America.

Many conservatives would use this formulation to attack certain features of the civil rights agenda (an agenda that, for them, represented the overreach of the federal government). They sought to roll back bussing as a remedy for segregated school districts, to dismantle affirmative action as a way to tackle generations of structural racism, to challenge minority set-asides that sought to address years of racial exclusion in the public sector, and to deny the significance of race in how voting districts were drawn.

And the word "freedom" became their possession. Today Americans are led to believe that freedom can be found in our ability to choose -- to consume -- and to bear responsibility for those choices. Freedom has been unhinged from justice; it stands as liberty alone. Just listen to the Tea Party. And, ironically, the very notion of freedom itself works to secure the idea that poor African Americans are primarily responsible for their conditions of living: they have simply failed to turn off their televisions or to eat healthy foods.

What is to be done? Many look to President Obama as the source for change. Others mock those who invest too much hope in the President. But what we have seen and learned over the last two years is that Obama's mantra of hope -- his insistence on 'yes we can' -- amounts to empty political sloganeering in an environment where greed and callousness dominate Washington. We must demand more of our representatives and, more importantly, of ourselves. 

I am of the mind, and I admit I am a bit cynical these days, that we cannot approximate the mass movement of old. The days of nostalgic longing for the civil rights movement are over. The circumstances are too different. The challenges are more elusive, and the suffering even more invisible. Moreover, so many African Americans have sold their souls for what James Weldon Johnson called a mess of pottage. Economic success and political access have become the golden apples of our day.

We have to reimagine struggle in light of the fundamental shift in the very nature of American governance. The traditional language we have used to engage the state and our fellow citizens have now been emptied out and filled with new references that reinforce an order that is quite content with persistent racial inequality. Civil Rights movement chants of "Freedom Now" seemed old and worn to those who traded it in for the mantle of "Black Power." Now both appear frayed and faded. A new language is urgently needed; a revolution of the imagination in action is required.

I am reminded of a scene in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." Walter tries desperately to convey his dreams of success to Mama. Those dreams reach beyond modest financial success. He desires the millions of the white folks he chauffeurs around town. Mama asks Walter why he talks so much about money, and he replies, "Because it is life, Mama!"

Her response is instructive to us as we embark on the challenge of addressing the extraordinary crisis in Black America. "So now it's life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life -- now it's money. I guess the world really do change ... "

Yes it does, and it has. Now we must gather ourselves up and do the work to secure a future for our children where the very word "freedom" has become part of the problem.