This weekend, I spoke at The Symposium on Barack Obama and American Democracy, held at Tufts University. The brilliant scholar behind the event, Dr. Peniel Joseph, has written extensively about what President Obama’s rise has meant for black America and black power in general. Dr. Ricky Jones from the University of Louisville also presented the counter-perspective on Obama, making this event one of the more intriguing conferences I’ve attended this year.
One of the topics on my mind as of late as it pertains to President Obama and black leadership is whether or not America needs a Black Agenda. I spoke on this topic with Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC, and Rev. Sharpton spent time going back and forth with Tavis Smiley on the issue, generating a great deal of conversation. The issue will be discussed further next month when the National Action Network will be holding one of the most significant forums on African American leadership that we’ve seen in quite a while.
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A Black Agenda does not have to be complicated. I believe that a consistent set of simple values pursued in a diligent, organized fashion for the next two years can help us to achieve a great deal. I will lay out three of these areas very quickly and follow up in detail with a series of articles on each topic. These ideas should be presented to the president and Congress, and we should lay out a unified front when communicating the importance of these issues to our elected officials. The areas are listed briefly below:
Economics: We know the abysmal statistics about black unemployment, which tends to be at least 60% higher than that of whites. According to the last estimate available, black unemployment stood at 16%, with the figure being 18% for African American males. We know these numbers are unacceptable. In addition to employment gaps between whites and blacks, wealth gaps continue to persist. Our children can learn the value of wealth building, financial literacy and entrepreneurship, so that they might be able to take control of their economic futures. If you don’t liberate yourself with good money management, then capitalism is designed to ultimately enslave you.
The second key area of the black agenda should focus on the educational system. Black children in inner city schools are not getting the education they deserve. Too many of our kids are being left behind, and many brilliant young children are having their potential killed by the lack of vision of adults who’ve been trusted with their care. This has got to stop and it is critical that our government put resources into failing schools and opening doors for young people to be successful. What’s worse is that the educational system is now serving as a feeder program for penitentiaries. The only spaces created for an unemployed black male without an education is a jail cell or a casket. We’ve got to push our children to remember the value of education and push education as hard as we push everything else. Also, we must hold our schools accountable for ensuring that talented young people are not thrown under the bus. Funding must be equalized for all schools and all children across America.
The final major area in my proposal for the Black Agenda is a complete reform of the prison and criminal justice systems. Mass incarceration has devastated African American families on a scale unlike anything the world has seen since the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. All the while, we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that anyone labeled as a “criminal” is not deserving of basic human or labor rights. The marginalization of ex-convicts by stripping them of their right to vote or find employment serves to undermine the ability of these men to become good fathers or husbands. So, reform of the prison system is critical to saving the integrity of the African American family. In fact, it is argued by many scholars that the prison system is a direct descendant of slavery.
I will provide consistent details on the three point plan for a black agenda. Of course these ideas are not exhaustive. There is a great deal of work to be done, and I am not the president of black America. At the same time, it is my hope and expectation as a scholar that we can all contribute to the debate and ultimately win the battle for our collective soul. We must be diligent, focused and radical when it comes to fighting for our rights. America is our country too.