- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Chanda Causer, former community organizer,
Over the past few months I have been asking myself, “Do Black people matter?” On the surface the answer is obviously yes; I couldn’t imagine how dull the entertainment industry would be without the presence of African Americans. From rhythmic dance tunes to fancy footwork on the ball field, to witty catch phrases on countless reality shows, Black folks absolutely matter across all color lines. What’s trending in the Black community today will surely sweep the nation in the months and years to come.
However, when it comes to more substantive matters that affect the lives of Black people; those issues fail to garner the same level of global attention. We have all heard the statistics: low attainment of education, high levels of incarceration, and third world nation-like rates of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. Besides the occasional rally, I don’t see any real intent to forge a new course of action against the peril that exists. I wonder if this is largely due to how others perceive Blacks externally and how Blacks identify themselves collectively.
I had been an effective organizer for many years; I had worked across various states, within poor, wealthy, rural and urban communities. I had built campaigns on matters of health disparities, gender inequality, voter education and a host of other community issues, all with the goal of improving the lives of underprivileged Black folk. At the local level I understood self-interest and I was unapologetic when pushing forward the agenda of my constituents and not ashamed to discuss what motivated me in simple, clear language. However, at the national level, things aren’t that cut and dry – the basic rules of organizing no longer apply when it comes to matters of race and racial disparities. Even the word “African American” or “Black” can come across as a loaded term, as it has a tendency to make people feel uneasy or even guilty in certain funding circles.
While attending a national HIV/AIDS Conference, I had the pleasure of viewing an amazing outreach and awareness video, which targeted African American women. The video was comprehensive and stated that, “1 in 30 African American women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime,” underscoring the urgency to build awareness among a group of people, who have been largely been disconnected and unaware of this epidemic. However, at the conclusion of the video a middle-aged, white male advocate stood up in contempt for the awareness piece. He stated, “We should not be divisive and segment ourselves around race,” insinuating that he had been discriminated against for not being represented in the video.
I was agitated by his comments, but not at all surprised, for I had encountered the same sort of reaction to countless campaign strategies I have recommended in my career. I’ve built campaigns to specifically target African Americans, only to be met with suspicion; I have even had someone accuse me of being “a race person.” I’ve recommended strategies to engage low-income communities (rural and urban), only to have key decision makers interpret “low-income” as code for Black.
These sorts of reactions, caused me great anxiety to fathom that a demographic of people were being underserved on a variety of different socioeconomic factors, and the mere suggestion of developing strategies to combat some of these tragedies were a non-starter. This could have been due to a variety of reasons, but to some degree, I think that the adverse reaction was largely due to the fact that the idea to discuss racial inequities was introduced by an African American woman, and with that comes along a fair number of connotations. Almost every black woman organizer I know has recounted stories of being perceived as angry or becoming angry due to the reactions of others, which makes negating conversation about race nearly impossible.
Working with “Black” leadership at the national level is also marred with its own share of setbacks. I’ve learned that Black people impede progress for themselves by finding ways to fragment within the community based solely on identity. On a variety of issues, I have mistakenly used the word Black as a way to include all people of darker skin. However, I am often met with reactions such as, “I’m not Black, I’m Jamaican.” “I’m not Black, I’m Colombian.” “I’m not Black, my mother is Irish, and therefore I am mocha” – It’s as silly as saying “I’m not Black, I’m North Carolinian.”
I jest, but I do understand, to some degree that they are trying to convey that they don’t identify with the image of blackness in the U.S. Who could blame them for wanting to place some distance between themselves and the tragic images that exists within the black community. The images often include the disease-infected single mother, the unemployable ex-con, the twenty-something aspiring rapper with a eighth grade education, or the highly educated person that tries so desperately hard to assimilate … then cracks. These images are largely exaggerated, but the problem is that people believe them wholeheartedly. This belief makes it challenging for Blacks to organize among themselves, which bifurcate the process. By the time a campaign is presented externally, it is a glimmer of the original goal.
Perhaps the question isn’t whether or not Black people matter, but whether or not black people have an image problem. African Americans have been ingrained in the minds of all people as “entertainers” for so long, that when someone tries to discuss important issues on the national level, it almost seems counterintuitive and boring. The “consumerization” of pieces of Black culture would lead you to believe that we live in a post-racial society; but by believing this illusion, we would be accepting the problems that affect the Black community as shear happenstance. Black people do matter, they just matter less in the American Caste system. However, just as infectious as the rhythmic sounds of Black culture has transcended across all communities, so too will the epidemics that permeate within the Black community.