Topic: Beating the Beatdown
Beating the Beatdown
Shifting political realities demand shifting responses from both conquerors and the conquered
By J.B. Borders
“Black people will never gain full equality in this country,” former Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell declared 15 years ago in an essay entitled “Racial Realism”.
A deliberately provocative writer and thinker whose arguments are fueled by both fact and imagination, Bell argued that even the hard-won achievements we consider to be successes will amount to no more than “temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.”
I stumbled upon Bell’s observation a few days ago, just as I was trying to wrap my mind around the significance of a number of recent local developments and trends that demonstrate the renewed vigor with which a growing number of folk are attempting to reinstitute and reinforce white domination in all spheres of the city’s life.
I had first read Bell back in the 1990s but his ideas had not had much traction for me then. He seemed much too pessimistic, depressing, wounded, defeatist. But the world and this city have changed considerably since 1992. Today Bell’s arguments seem entirely appropriate for discussion, necessary even for those of us committed to living in New Orleans.
Bell’s key point is that African Americans have to stop being delusional and “acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgement enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph.”
Of course, that’s what we thought was happening in New Orleans in the 1990s – that we were implementing strategies and policies to create wealth, justice and fulfillment in the black part of town. Eventually those transformative changes would lead to some sort of equality, many of us genuinely believed. We knew it wouldn’t be quick or easy. We presumed there would be setbacks along the way. But we never for an instant accepted that it would be impossible or impractical to achieve full equality. After all, our people had journeyed from slavery to freedom. Surely equality was within our grasp.
Back in the early 1990s, the impending changes in South Africa offered hope that people of African descent could continue to overcome almost any adversity anywhere on Earth. Back then, the early days of the Clinton presidency offered hope that urban America could be reinvigorated for black folks as well as for whites. Back then, we thought the unconscionable disparities in household wealth, access to health care and education would close instead of widen in the years ahead. Back then, we assumed the impending technological revolution sparked by the spread of personal computers would increase opportunity for the underprivileged and level the playing field across the globe. Back then, we thought there could be social and economic revolution without bloodshed.
We were buoyed by what Barack Obama today would call audacious hope. And Bell’s arguments and prescriptions sounded too much like the pleadings of 1950s Negroes who argued against the marches, demonstrations, boycotts, jailings, beatings and other acts of defiance in the fight to dismantle segregation in the hyper-racist American South.
We would all be so much better off if the Negro stayed in his place and accepted the care and protection the white man provided, the reasoning went. Besides, this was a battle black folks couldn’t win – the white power structure was too strong to be toppled by a rag-tag gang of unarmed, unintelligent peasants and a handful of misguided white do-gooders and Communist agitators. It would be better to not rock the boat and stay in our own world with our own kind and our own way of life.
That argument ultimately did not carry the day but it was important that such suggestions be part of the public discourse back then. And there were moments in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the prospects for victory seemed extremely bleak and people needed to examine what it might cost to keep on pushing forward as opposed to retreating or settling for partial gains. That’s precisely when arguments like Derrick Bell’s needed to be heard.
New Orleans is at such a moment now. This is a crossroads in our destiny. By the time summer arrives, the city will be either one incident away from a full-scale race war or one indictment/election from voluntarily surrendering all our power back to white folks and assuming the Darky Position once again.
Many local power brokers are working diligently to make the latter option become reality but conditions will certainly be ripe for the former scenario to be played out, too.
Large numbers of poor, uneducated black folk will no longer be penned up in public housing projects, which have traditionally given many of them a false sense of well-being and security.
Unemployment and underemployment will continue to make it difficult, if not impossible, for lower-income blacks to support their families. Latino immigrants and whites will continue to grab most of the construction and service-industry jobs.
The Asian and Arab business owners monopolizing commerce in predominately black neighborhoods will continue to hire only members of their own clans and not the black people who spend their money in these immigrants’ stores.
Property crimes and other wealth-transfer initiatives against the relatively well-to-do will be attempted with greater regularity by desperate young people possessing guns, moxie and no prospects for the future.
The small black middle class will continue to be under assault as the salaries and perks of their government jobs get squeezed, the sub-prime mortgage crisis claims their homesteads, and the pace of rebuilding in their neighborhoods continues to move at a snail’s pace.
Meanwhile, the black elite will continue to be hounded by corruption investigations and challenges to all their professional services contracts and entrepreneurial endeavors.
In addition, increasing numbers of ordinary white folk will feel emboldened to verbally and physically abuse “inferior” blacks, which, in their minds, means any of us. One of them will cross the line, however, and say or do something to the wrong black person and – Boom! The war will be on.
The Next Battle of New Orleans
I had been trying to visualize how the next Battle of New Orleans would begin when Jackie Clarkson’s election last month to an at-large seat on the City Council made it all clear.
Clarkson now gives the Council its first white majority in a generation. And the way she won the election will likely set the tone for her tenure. When the race for the seat got tight during the last two weeks of the campaign, Clarkson’s handlers whipped out the race card. Her opponent, the Clarkson campaign gloated, was endorsed by Sherman Copelin and Congressman William Jefferson. Readers of the campaign flyer were apparently supposed to infer that these are corrupt black leaders and that electing Clarkson’s opponent, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, would be tantamount to putting the alleged crooks’ crony into a position of greater authority.
Apparently, the ploy panned out. Though overall voter turnout was low, white turnout was high enough to give Clarkson the edge. The black majority voluntarily ceded control of the Council to the white minority.
I suspect we’ll begin to seriously regret this decision before the weather turns hot again. And then one day at City Hall – perhaps a week or so after the Essence Music Festival Empowerment Seminars take place – Spacey Stacey, Munchkin Midura or Wacky Jackie will say something offensive to a Civil Servant Sister. It will likely be some cutting remark intended to impugn the woman’s professional integrity and intelligence.
The sister will, in turn, slap the bejesus out of that person – how dare she speak to me like that! A black male security officer will attempt to intervene. He’ll put his hand on the sister and she will start scuffling with him. Gunfire might ensue. The sister will take the bullet. Whether she lives or dies, her colleagues at City Hall along with the usual strident community activists will stage a protest in front of the offending City Councilwoman’s home.
The police will be called in to restore order. Instead, they will inflame the situation. More violence will erupt. For several days thereafter it will spread across the city, infecting not just poor, predominately black neighborhoods and Canal Street but also the normally-oblivious white enclaves along Magazine Street and the Lakefront.
Another new New Orleans will then have to be confected – one which will provide greater levels of equity to the city’s black population.
I’m certain this is what Derrick Bell envisioned when he advised us to come to grips with the “permanence of our subordinate status” so that we can “avoid despair” and be free “to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph.”