"Race Reconciliation Will Take More Than Just Talk,"by Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race
When the Black Leadership Forum (BLF) was founded in 1978 as a confederation of this nation's major civil rights and service organizations, it was inspired partially by the need for a formal mechanism to facilitate meaningful dialogue with sitting presidents and other national leaders. At that time, the sitting president was Jimmy Carter, a Southerner who believed that his civil rights credentials provided him a special intimacy with Black folk, and he did not need them to tell him what was on their minds. Black leaders felt differently and formed BLF.
Not much has changed over the years. Even with an alleged "hangin' buddy" like President Bill Clinton, African American leaders' experiences validate the imperative, so eloquently expressed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Presidential Advisor and Black icon Mary McCloud Bethune: "No one can speak for me better than I can speak for myself!"
As President Clinton's Race Initiave takes shape, BLF members and other African American leaders therefore have turned up the volume of their discourse and increased the frequency of their dialogues with many other Americans, including the President. They intend to make sure that Black voices are clearly heard on the subject of racial reconciliation and what it actually requires, and are not drowned out by a cacophony of other voices that do not form a chorus of assent, and do not sing the tunes which gave cadence to the historic civil rights struggle.
For example, meaningful remediation of racism calls for action on sentencing parity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine violations — sentencing parity, not just reduction to a smaller ratio. Recommendations for ratio reduction are viewed by some as "an example of liberals hanging Black folk from a low tree."
Tensions between police and the Black community are labelled "racist" by many Black leaders who, moreover, view the increasing brutality and violence of policemen against Blacks as more than civil rights violations. These encounters, which always have been felonious, are the single most pernicious aspect of American racism. Examination of practical remedies to this evil certainly is within the mandate of the President's Race Initiative and could help to establish its relevance.
There is a critical need for a deliberate White House urban policy focus which goes beyond selecting a few cities for experimental treatment. At the core of our contemporary civil rights struggle is the concentration in cities of the most troublesome problems — violence, unemployment and underemployment, deteriorating school plants and educational programs, stalled economic and job development. Yet cities offer one of America's greatest untapped economic potentials: three-quarters of African Americans and most of all other racial minorities are urban dwellers. Nonetheless, racism is synonymous with cities and urban decline.
Policies to enhance Community Development Banks and support local efforts by small community-based banks are critical. The President's Race Initiative might well start by inviting the testimony and case examples from the numerous neighborhood-based local banks that can provide a briefing on their successes and on the national supports they require.
Other steps that could further racial reconciliation are education resource increases; policy revisions to support meaningful and fair welfare reform; and a curb on purposeless, biased and unstandardized testing of public school students. Currently being promoted as optional tools for establishing educational standards, these proposed tests are regulated and monitored by no one in particular. They are viewed by Black leaders as Trojan horses for academic tracking. Racism often finds inadvertent vehicles for its advancement.
Discrimination against Southern Black farmers, and remediation of the uncompensated seizure of their land, offer clear opportunities for legitimate Federal intervention. The tools to provide equity already exist. Communication and implementation of these are needed.
But beyond these more programmatic, operational considerations, the Federal government has a constitutional responsibility for enforcing existing civil rights laws which guard minorities, and for providing the equal protection under the law guaranteed to all Americans. It is a new-age, states rights ideology which permits the re-segregation of schools and communities to occur under the camouflage of devolution. It is racial malice for reactionaries and the media to advance the concepts of racial preferences and quotas, as though these illegal practices accurately reflect Affirmative Action, or represent the Black community's legitimate demands for opportunity, access, fairness and equity.
The conditions of racism which pervade contemporary society are historic and enduring. It is simplistic to expect that a brand new presidential initiative will have produced identifiable results less than six months into its existence, much less to expect that a comfort level and mutual protocols to guide its members' interactions will have been evolved so soon. Those who are impatient at this juncture — who push for quick remedies and instant solutions — should be mindful lest they sacrifice substance for speed.
President Clinton should immediately extend the life of the Race Initiative for another year, to permit less frenetic deliberation about this lingering social deficit which threatens America's future. Moreover, all of us should increase our efforts to craft human-scale expressions of racial reconciliation within our own networks of friends and community. It's everyone's responsibility.
Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is Executive Director and C.O.O. of the Black Leadership Form (1090 Vermont Ave. NW, #100, Washington, DC 20005, 202/789-3507).
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