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Michael Henry Adams

Michael Henry Adams

Posted: February 6, 2010 11:18 PM

The Future of Harlem?

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In a speech Malcolm X asked rhetorically, "What do Racists call a black with a PhD?," to which he answered, "Nigger!"

That was America 45 years ago, a land where it's only been 145 short years since slavery ended. That's why it's still possible for my generation to know people whose parents or grandparents were slaves.


And now we have a black president. Things have certainly changed. But because Obama became president, does that mean that we've achieved parity? No. Paradoxically, distressingly, many things are very much as they have always been.

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Attending a birthday bash for my friend, the philanthropist and shoe designer Etu Evans, at his Wall Street apartment, this point was driven home. In a New York that's frequently segregated, I encountered a chic and cosmopolitan crowd of young strivers. Haiti became a topic of conversation early-on, inasmuch as Etu's Solesville Foundation is planning to take shoes to an orphanage there.

Once considered learning-disabled, Etu is a native of Orangeburg, South Carolina. Trained at Carolina State University, Parsons, Columbia, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, dubbed by fashion journals, 'the Prince of Luxe', incessantly encouraged by his family, Etu was able to overcome limitations ordained for him by others.


Like so many of his friends, surmounting varied obstacles to achieve the American Dream, Etu truly understands that, as with any other resource, 'a mind is a terrible thing to waste', that America's future ability to compete depends on all of us enabling people still in need to realize their full potential. Afraid of losing 'control' to minorities, white resistance to this vital change is hardly unexpected 'But why,' I asked, while passing a tray of canapés, 'are so many well-off, well-educated blacks, so often pitted against, so strangely insensitive to, the quandary of the black poor?'


"That's interesting," said an attractive woman who is Chinese- American. "I think that might be typical of all groups. Chinese people, once we become successful, we try so desperately to assimilate. It makes us shun poor people who still cling to their old identity. Often we marry whites. I see it in the store where I work too, with black men. Sports and music stars come in, and on their arm there's always a white girl with extensions and big boobs. The black women where I work, even the black gay guys, they resent it. One friend said that it makes her feel rejected and underscores the idea that she 's unworthy. Another friend, who's really pretty but very dark, said that light-skinned African American women who become the girlfriends and wives of the best black guys make her feel just as alienated"

Contempt from any quarter is unfortunate because it's so destructive. Yet certainly the resentment of poor blacks toward the indifferent or distracted privileged, is understandable. Enlightened by advantage, how can light-skinned, graduate-school-trained African Americans not perceive what a superficial difference separates us all? How is it possible to trivialize the plight of our people in despair, or even to castigate those suffering, whose children attend substandard schools and who own little or nothing, as the devisors of their own anguish?


A child of considerable privilege himself, my 95-year-old friend, Grafton Trew, easily puts the blame on fear, "Those 'high-tone' Negros, they know the truth. Don't be misguided by their show of bravado. On a dark street, or even on their own verandah, they could all be stripped and separated from their fine things in a flash. Their degrees, club memberships and mongrel lineage, the things that help convince them that they are 'honorary whites', could be rendered meaningless by any poorly educated white police officer and his colored colleague, by some surly bank teller, a threatened employer, or a prejudiced judge. This realization is too much, too painful to acknowledge. That's why we celebrate all these absurdly asinine distinctions and betray our own."

'New York has the best public housing in the world!..our churches and charities, combined with public efforts, have done a tremendous job of providing opportunities for poor folks to obtain affordable housing...In Harlem, you could get brownstones, the city was giving them away to people for a dollar...But folks have a responsibility to step up, to look out for themselves. When they don't, after a while society just has to move on to pursue other goals.'
The speaker is Deborah C. Wright, expounding as a panelist in Harlem, hosted by the Abyssinians Baptist Church Development Corporation.


Deborah Wright heads the largest African American-owned bank in the United States. Educated at Radcliff and Harvard, like Etu, she epitomizes all the high-achieving ambition that's long characterized the black bourgeoisie. Born in 1958, Ms. Wright also spent her early youth in South Carolina at Bennetsville.

Descent from four generations of Baptist ministers--from her great-grandfather to her brother, perhaps accounts for her preaching tone toward the disadvantaged. Ironically, perhaps illustrative of a predictable trajectory among the black bon-ton, an aunt, Marian Wright Edelman, the first African American woman to be admitted to the bar of the state of Mississippi during the 1970s, excelled in a very different sort of career. Founding the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman lobbied assiduously to improve the lives of American children from impoverished neighborhoods.

"Now wait, you want to be fair," said a long term friend of Wright's, speaking on condition of anonymity, since she says her chum can be, "really over-sensitive and vindictive!" She would tell you that her work in both the public and private sectors, as a consultant for the Abyssinians Baptist Church Development Corporation, president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, as a member of the Planning Commission, as commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, as an overseer for Harvard, a Kraft and Time Warner board member, and an officer at First Boston and at Carver Banks, to her, it's all been meant to help empower other blacks too.

"That," says Grafton Trew, "is precisely the problem. The everlasting shame of the Negro elite is their ability to rationalize their self-serving cronyism into a convoluted notion of black advancement in general, as if they were actually going to regularly loan out their Saabs and beach houses to poor black folks. She's never even lived uptown." ,
he says of Wright, who earned over $500,000 last year and lives in Greenwich Village.

April G. Tyler, a Harlem-based tenant organizer and Democratic district leader is also eager to express a certain dubiousness regarding Wright's self-congratulatory assertions. "Man, where does one start to try to cut through such a sunny spin-job? she asked. To begin with, 20 years ago, the city held around 80 percent of Harlem's housing stock, because of property owners defaulting on their taxes. That was a remarkable opportunity. But today what percentage of long-term Harlem residents own the place where they live? It's not even 25 percent and largely that's because when the city was offering those dollar houses, Harlem was completely red-lined by banks."

According to Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data in fact, late into the 1990's it was still possible to discover only one home loan had been awarded in all of Harlem, during an entire year. Those fortunate enough to successfully maneuver through a dollar brownstone lottery, which was widely assumed to be rigged, were required to renovate badly deteriorated houses within a proscribed period. "Only, back then," Tyler adds, obviously annoyed, "no bank would issue a construction loan. Sure, some especially determined people were creative enough to still renovate these super-derelict buildings, but what does that prove?"


And if, as Ms. Tyler has shown, in the past home ownership opportunities for blacks without capital were elusive, what happened in Harlem during the housing boom? "Oh brother!" Tyler exclaims. That's the question people always want answered after they've asked, 'Why didn't blacks in Harlem buy when property was so cheap there?' and one explains how it was red-lined. They then like to suggest that legislative remedies that made loans available to blacks were at the bottom of causing the recession. They love insisting how jobless African Americans, with no assets, were bestowed uncollateralized loans in such numbers that we swamped the national economy, single-handedly. In reality, it's been shown that a majority of black borrowers, who qualified for conventional, fixed-rate long-term mortgages were steered to volatile, subprime loans instead; that presented with a white and a black borrower with matching qualifications, routinely the blacks got loans with far more onerous terms for repayment. With an average yearly wage of just $36,000 most Harlemites can't possibly hope to aspire to own supposedly affordable apartments marketed to those earning 20 percent of the much, much higher regional median income."

"Are you surprised, my young friend?" Trew asked. Not troubling to await a response, he avers, "I tell you it's no accident, or collection of coincidences what's happening: whites abandoned Harlem to us, and now they want it back!"

Can that really be what's going on? Currently New York's Housing Authority, its Police Department and public school system are all being sued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's century-old premier civil rights advocate. One suit contends that in the name of protecting public housing development tenants, residents and their guests are being routinely, and indiscriminately arrested, sometimes for lacking identification, but often even after it's produced. Similarly, parents at public schools scheduled to be closed for alleged poor performance have joined with the city teachers' union and a group of elected officials, seeking to preserve schools they contend 'already work' and which, given added support and sufficient resources, they say, 'could work superbly!'


For some, recalling Michael Bloomberg's cold inauguration day, memorable for vaunted calls of new collaboration, these developments have been disillusioning. "I understand that this term is a special opportunity," stated the chastened mayor. "I realize, too that the building behind me is yours-and the job in front of me is to listen and to lead." In a related vein, School Chancellor Joel I. Klein stressed, of supposedly deficient schools, "Closings are meant to be curative, not punitive."


"That's meant to indicate how the administration is working to improve education for the poor, when the actions they are taking are actually harming public schools" says a Harlem teacher. "They crowd new charter schools, with improved facilities into public schools. They have smaller classes, made up of hand-picked students. They spend three times as much for lunch as the dollar a day allocated for our kids. But they pay teachers much less than what our contract calls for. Parents and kids are not blind. They're dealing with the same 'old' school, but can see this shiny new, supposedly 'improved' charter school on another floor. It's like poor black kids seeing pampered white children on TV, some, insecure in their identity, naturally are going to despair of the reality of who they are.


Only it's a false paradigm: these black children are not dumb or inferior. All they lack is what others already enjoy. With poorly trained teachers, unprotected by unions they'll be as well off as American workers whose jobs are now held by someone making ten cents an hour in Southeast Asia. Were the new schools and the charter schools all that's claimed, then you'd have affluent whites or President Obama clamoring to send their kids to them, as opposed to new schools and the charter schools being foisted onto Harlem and other marginalized neighborhoods."


A party to the NAACP's law suit, a quizzical State Senator Bill Perkins of the 30th District, concurs, stating, "I and others are troubled by the seemingly arbitrary criteria by which schools are closed. Why is one school shut, while other schools, with lower test scores, are allowed to remain open? Concerns are heightened when we see that 12 of the 20 schools being eliminated, allegedly due to poor performance, last year during the election season, were determined to be 'proficient'. And how fair is it for large, underfunded schools, disproportionately burdened with high-needs students, some who are homeless, others who are immigrant students not proficient in English, to be assessed without taking these factors into account?"


Talking with tenant leaders they seem just as resolute. 'Whatever it takes, they say, they 'will work to prevent a return to the situation that prevailed in the recent past.' Just a decade or so ago many housing project residents felt besieged by a few drug-dealing despots whose reign of crime pervaded their towering homes with an atmosphere of terror. Nevertheless, numerous law-abiding tenants are just as adamant, that harassing their relations and visitors, or even them, is unacceptable too.

Over two thousand people came out to express their displeasure over Mayor Bloomberg's determination to close their local schools. Late into they night they waited patiently to make sure he knew their position. Some had been among the dozens, earlier in the week, picketing to save their schools, at his opulent East Side townhouse. Didn't he hear their pleas, or did they simply not matter?


With the crisis facing education in the city, some see Charter schools as a panacea. But the separate, unequal and often, thanks to imposed charter schools, overcrowded facilities that emerge in their place are a growing source of tension. Where will the underserved be educated? How will the Department of Education reassure an uneasy public that its aggressive approach to school closing is not helping but compounding damage already affecting students most susceptible to falling behind?


Forty years from now, will Harlem, like the rest of Manhattan Island, have been metamorphosed completely into the 'luxury city' the mayor and others anticipate so fondly? Will increasingly abandoned and disinvested public schools cause ever more desperate parents to demand that charter schools or parochial school vouchers be instituted in their place? Will ongoing persecution by the police, at similarly neglected public housing complexes make enough residents move to easily effect their conversion into market-rate buildings? Will Harlem be an African American Cultural Capital that's devoid of African Americans, except for black cooks and performers engaged to preserve black cultural traditions in the 'Luxury City's' perennially popular 'Harlem World' attraction?


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