Responsibility and the New Racial Divide

Priya A. Rajdev

Not so long ago, writer Ralph Ellison openly lamented what he called the invisibility of black people, a peculiar condition where we are not acknowledged by the larger society—not because we do not exist, but because others simply refuse to acknowledge us. Turn on the television now, however, and the average viewer is likely to be bombarded with images of wealthy and famous blacks. Likewise, colleges and corporations now contain sizeable populations of blacks who are heavily recruited and enjoy unprecedented support in the development and maintenance of cultural organizations. Nevertheless, while larger society is increasingly exposed to a new black elite, there is another side of black life throughout the world that is suffering from that same invisibility that Ellison recognized in the 1940s.

In the 21st century we are witnessing a shift within the African Diaspora, where we are rapidly moving towards two separate and unequal camps: the black elite and the black underclass. The much-celebrated black elite enjoys access to power and prestige that blacks have heretofore been denied, while the black underclass, victims of spatial isolation and concentrated poverty, are consistently plagued by violence and resource deprivation. Whereas the black elite roams the halls of power, the black underclass becomes even more removed from politics, and indeed life—committing themselves to a nihilistic alienation characterized by behaviors and attitudes that fluctuate along a thin spectrum from suicidal to survivalist.

This chasm that now exists between the prospects of those in the black elite and those in the black underclass poses the most substantial threat to black life since the end of Reconstruction. Martin Luther King Jr. and contemporary activists made tremendous strides with their nonviolent approach and dogged pursuit of a dream of racial integration. But despite their progress, the black underclass remains the most isolated, impoverished, alienated and exploited group in America. Harvard’s Civil Rights Project released a report last month stating that Boston’s neighborhoods are just as segregated as they were 40 years ago, if not more so. There are also currently more black men in prison than college, a development that saddens few who do not profit off of the prison-industrial complex. These circumstances must be taken as tangible proof that the dream has failed and that political alliances forged in the civil rights era may no longer be the prudent course of action for black people in America.

In committing ourselves to the paternalism of the Democratic Party, we have essentially removed ourselves from politics and are considered by all sides to be the intellectual property of Democrats who have to do no more than pay lip service to our demands. Dick Harpootlian, the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic party, perhaps put it best by reportedly saying, “I don’t want to buy the black vote; I just want to rent it for a day.’’ With this credo in mind, Democrats parade about black churches evoking the name of King during campaigns, but often fail to show similar zeal for black issues in the legislative process. Black leaders are just as responsible: most have either been co-opted into the party and thus are ineffective at achieving policy goals, or they are instead intellectually adrift, clinging tenaciously to civil rights-era politics in an era that is fundamentally different locally and globally.

Black America has been lulled to sleep by our four decade-long celebration of baby steps toward racial equality with the Democratic party. It is now time to wake up from this slumber and realize that a sizeable part of black America and a huge swath of the African Diaspora are living a veritable nightmare. Ravaged by AIDS and poverty, exploited by rampant globalization, victimized by violence and political strife, the black underclass is facing what amounts to biological elimination.

The problem is, however, that in our celebration of the minor victories claimed by the civil rights movement, we have convinced the rest of America that our current political demands are unfounded and unnecessary. According to a 2001 Gallup poll, despite the statistical inequalities, more than 70 percent of whites believe that blacks are treated equally in their communities. Thus it is now impossible to rely on the empathy of liberal whites to stave off the de facto genocide of the black underclass. We can no longer play the politics of sentimentalism with tactics better suited to the abolitionist movement than a globalized world. It is imperative in this year 2004 that the black elite spend less time enjoying their status and instead devote themselves wholeheartedly to a series of projects that develop independent black political and economic institutions capable of leveraging a policy agenda from both sides of the political spectrum.

Specifically, black politics must be concerned with restructuring affirmative action with regards to black people; pushing a pan-African agenda that works to prevent the spread of AIDS and avert the destabilization of the African continent; and creating independent financial institutions that reinvest and redistribute wealth throughout the Diaspora. Moreover, black elites must devote themselves to the education of black youth in order to provide an alternative voice to the onslaught of negativity unleashed by a profit-driven media.

The descendants of African people worldwide are facing a life or death situation, and it is now largely up to black people, especially the black elite, to decide whether they will take steps to be part of the solution or instead tacitly consent to the de facto genocide of our race. The temptation for the latter will be strong, buoyed by the enticements of material goods and popular sentiments, but we must be stronger and ensure that our progress is not erased by complacency and inattention.

Brandon M. Terry ’05 is a joint government and African and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House. He is the president of the Black Men’s Forum.