Leonard Pitts Jr.
Somehow, for black people, it always comes down to fractions.
At the beginning, there was that unpleasantness about the Constitution counting us as three-fifths of a human being. More recently, fractions have been necessary to measure our progress toward equality.
So in a sense, the National Urban League’s just-released “State of Black America 2004” report is business as usual. This year’s version of the annual study features a new “equality index,” a statistical device that assigns to whites a value of 1 and measures blacks against that.
For instance, the report finds that minority schools are twice as likely to be staffed with inexperienced teachers and that blacks achieve college degrees at 63 percent the rate of whites. These and other factors work out to a black “educational status” of 0.76, or 76 percent that of whites. Social justice for blacks is at 0.73, health at 0.78, economic status at 0.56. Fractions of equality.
What gives this latest report particular weight is the timing of its arrival. On July 2, it will be 40 years since President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. And on May 17, it will be half a century since the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, those victories form the foundation of the modern world for blacks. So it’s a fitting time to pause and assess where we are. But I think it’s an even more fitting time to craft an agenda for where we need to go.
I can think of three things off the top of my head that ought to be on it.
• One: Stop waiting for the next Martin Luther King Jr.
A young man told me recently the reason activism is dead is that we have no more leaders. Me, I think we do ourselves no favors by sitting around waiting for them to arrive. With apologies to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have tried manfully to fill shoes several sizes too big for them, the era of the charismatic leader is over, perhaps forever. There is no new Martin, Malcolm or Marcus on the way. But if those men taught us nothing, they taught us to be empowered people, taught us that revolution lies within each of us. All we need is the courage to grab it.
• Two: Re-integrate white folks of good will into the struggle.
We forget sometimes there were white people who fought and even died for black civil rights. From that pinnacle of principle, we have sunk to a place where too many blacks have naught but reflexive anger for their white countrymen and too many of those white countrymen willingly narcotize conscience by denying or justifying the persistence of American racism. Where such people can be redeemed, we ought to make the effort, if only out of enlightened self-interest.
• Three: Handle our business.
Not to minimize the corrosive effects of the aforementioned racism, but truth is, much of what ails black folk is within the power of black folk to fix. We need to bring fathers back into our families. We need to prioritize education above entertainment. We need to shut off the television sometimes and read. We need to support black business. We need to bling-bling less and save-save more. We need to stop saying “nigger.”
Honestly, there is no shortage of items for the agenda, no shortage of things black Americans and white need to do. But arguably the most important is simply to find the clear-eyed faith to believe, as they did 40 and 50 years ago, that just because a thing always had been did not mean it always must be.
So it is with these fractions of health, fractions of education, fractions of human potential. We live lives bounded by fractions.
And before we can make ourselves free, we must first make ourselves whole.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: