50 years later, we all need a new black narrative

The nation has now celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 60th of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. All of these events allowed opportunities to think in new ways about the nation’s long and tortured history regarding race. 

Many speakers at the various ceremonies celebrated how far we’ve come as Americans, about the surprising pace of progress inside the short historical span of 50 years. After all, thanks to the black leaders of the civil rights movement (along with white and Jewish allies), African-Americans have been CEOs at Time Warner Inc., American Express Co. and Merrill Lynch. Blacks have served as secretary of state, national security adviser, attorney general and president. Blacks have served in Congress, as chiefs of police, and as the mayors and governors of our largest cities and states. Blacks have written best-selling books, won MacArthur fellowships and have become Ivy League professors, billionaires, engineers, national talk-show hosts, chess grandmasters, dot-com millionaires, theoretical physicists and Hollywood directors. 

Yet, others (mostly black civil rights figures) continue to posture at podiums to say that little has changed. They grudgingly acknowledge that some progress has taken place, but add that “there is so much further yet to go.” 

“This struggle is not over,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told those who gathered to mark last year’s anniversary of the March on Washington. “We want reparations!” thundered the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, to a standing ovation.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ impassioned plea for reparations in a recent essay in The Atlantic may have been well-written, but the article was just the latest of many such efforts to “keep the white man on the hook” for past racial sins, even today, when the only blacks who could have ever made any legitimate claims for reparations are now long-dead. 

All Americans would benefit from a robust debate about the operative black narrative today — but the victim narrative persists, largely unquestioned, even at the highest levels of government. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, “disparities that persist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.”

The “so much further yet to go” wording sounds useful, perhaps even realistic.  But we disagree. We think that the quest for a racial utopia is in itself an impediment that stifles real progress. America’s civil rights great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cautioned us to “keep our eyes on the prize.” In other words, work for practical things, things that could be realized, not utopian notions of cosmic justice.

In 1967, King told an audience of black middle-school students: “Even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper … sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. … If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. It isn’t by size that you win or fail; be the best at whatever that you are!”

The struggle for “real things” has changed the face of America. Today, black Americans are the masters of their own destinies, something that those alive during the depression years could have never imagined — just as they could not have imagined a twice-elected black president and a black attorney general at the helm of American political power.

Because of the national decline of racism, activists are now relegated to making largely unconvincing claims of racism. They try to convince us that “unconscious bias, micro-aggressions, disparate impact, and implicit bias” are the new frontiers of “the struggle.” In an Orwellian way, progressives try to punish thoughts, or limit speech to things that don’t ever hurt someone’s feelings.  

All too frequently, victimization is the starting point for many discussions of black life in America, where debates about Donald Sterling, Paula Dean, Cliven Bundy and Trayvon Martin have dominated the cultural conversation. It has been the one agreed-upon premise, the most important presupposition about the black plight. However, this story has run its course.  

If blacks want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of American citizenship, a new narrative has to be agreed upon. The damage caused by relying on any story or idea or interpretation is that, if it fails to fit the facts, it becomes a suffocating ideology. Victims, after all, tend to blame others and lapse into dysfunction. 

A robust debate about the operative black narrative is critical for the health of the nation, and for future race relations among all Americans. The “blacks as victims” narrative allows black leaders to exploit guilt among whites and sets the basis for an existential black grievance industry.

No, all racism has not evaporated, and problems do exist. Violence and crime are disproportionately high in all too many black communities, as are single-parent births and rates of incarceration. Urban public schools are all too often dismal factories for failure, the drug war has decimated neighborhoods, and the joblessness and poverty rates among blacks are a national embarrassment. But arguing that racism always explains these problems ill-serves our national interests. 

Indeed, after more than 50 years of epic battles for specific rights in Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery; after two monumental legislative victories, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965; after three decades of affirmative action, a once-oppressed people are simply no longer that. It’s time for black Americans to start thinking that way.

Joe R. Hicks, a former head of the Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is a political commentator and vice president of Community Advocates Inc.  David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates Inc.