We are living in the Black Lives Matter era. A community-based rallying cry as well as a formal organization (the Black Lives Matter Global Network), BLM rose up in response to the repeated murders of unarmed Black men at the hands of vigilantes and white police officers. But it has since morphed into something even greater, this generation’s most important catalyst for social change. For the first time in American history, there is a consensus that, well, Black life matters, and that we must address the inequalities that persist for Black Americans.
The question is, how to achieve this. On the one hand, you have the view embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement and its followers, which focuses on external factors like systemic racism and white supremacy. On the other hand, you have the view favored by conservatives—both Black and white—which proposes the Black community look inward to find the source of the persistent inequalities Black Americans face.
These two positions are often cast as incompatible. Conservatives denounce BLM’s talking points about dismantling the nuclear family and defunding the police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while many on the Left view the suggestion that we look within the Black community for solutions to what ails us as racist victim blaming. Considering American history, is there really an argument to be made that we should remove responsibility for anti-Black racism—which has plagued this nation since its inception—from white America and place the burden of healing solely on Black people?
It’s a fair question. And yet, placing no responsibility on Black people is not the golden ticket to equity we might wish. Because the truth is, both sides of this debate own pieces of the puzzle: We must address systemic racism—and we must heal ourselves. These are not contradictory positions; both are necessary to creating an America that is truly equal, a goal we will not achieve if we are afraid of naming the real if complex culprit lurking behind our inequality.
This is true because that inequality comes in a number of forms. The typical Black family has just one tenth the wealth of a white family. If in 1863, Black Americans owned half of 1 percent of the national wealth, today it’s just over 1.5 percent. This staggering inequality clearly stems from a system-wide source, which affirmative action sought to address; it was designed as a kind of proto-BLM, to affirm that multigenerational Black American lives and economic prosperity finally mattered, and that that prosperity was being hampered by external factors like racism in hiring.
This was long overdue: No other racial population has been targeted across generations by the government like the Black community. No other demographic has been unilaterally excluded, by name, from full participation in American economic processes, like ours has. The duration and scope of this harm is exclusive to multigenerational Black America—specifically, to the descendants of slaves.
Of course, we know now that affirmative action was not the fix many hoped; the majority of the beneficiaries of affirmative action have not been the descendants of slaves at all but white women. But it’s not just the poor implementation of affirmative action that deserves critique, because economic inequality is not the only form of inequality we continue to face.
For while policies like affirmative action were attempting to solve external causes of inequality, we somehow arrived at a situation where three-quarters of non-immigrant Black children are born to unwed mothers. These children often grow up in under-resourced homes where their opportunities are limited, and where their risk of facing incarceration is much higher. That risk is compounded by the fact that one of the largest populations to fall prey to gun deaths are young men 15-35 years old, the majority of them Black and/or Latino. Every single day in America, 26 Black people are killed.
No doubt, there are external factors in determining why so many Black children are born to a single mother and why so many Black men are killed by others in gun violence. Certainly, some of it is systemic racism. Things like red-lining and white flight played a role in these inequities, things Black America was not prepared for after desegregation when our community gave up most of its own institutions and cornerstone businesses, creating a dependence upon non-Black resources. Black Americans believed that desegregation would deliver the full access and material resources that we’d fought and died for, and it took us too long to realize that the civil rights legislation, which largely focused on interstate commerce and economic benefits to the nation, did not focus on penalizing anti-Black bias.
There was a naïveté in our community on this front: Segregation was “unfair and unequal” not only because Blacks and whites couldn’t commute together, marry, and share a dinner table; separate and unequal was unjust because the dollars of America didn’t flow equitably across racial lines. Ironically, the source of those dollars was the forced labor of the enslaved ancestors to the average 1960’s Black American and most of Southern Blacks today.
But again, it’s not only external factors at play here. That initial post-segregation naïveté has morphed into another epidemic in the Black community: self-hatred. We in the Black community still have internal issues with hair texture and skin color preferences (like the “brown paper bag tests” that dictate beauty standards and social treatment). These preferences affect Black folks’ ability to live together, love each other, and collaborate. This leaves Black people not trusting those in the Black community while also not trusting—yet remaining dependent upon—those outside the Black community.
We Black Americans must let go of and unlearn such impractical holdovers from eras long gone by.
Moreover, all too often, I encounter Black Americans who believe the media narratives about their inherent inferiority and criminality. This has caused Black people to fear each other, to not trust fellow Black people with their money or wellbeing. Unlike other economically-minded communities, contemporary Black people do not aggregate their dollars or consolidate their political will in strategic ways. For example, I’ve noticed that if Black people shop with Black businesses, we tend to give little grace to customer service errors. Yet, we seem to tolerate disrespect and even outright verbal and physical abuse from other establishments. This haphazard approach to community life suggests a low level of self-regard which does not garner respect from others, because it is clear we have failed to truly value ourselves.
How has a people learned to behave this way? How have these vestiges of marginalization remained viable in 21st century Black America?
The Black community needs to heal itself in many ways. Despite the fact that systems led by white people share responsibility, we can’t rely upon nor wait for white America to solve our problems for us.
During the last two generations, Black Americans had made some inroads with counteracting stereotypes via television shows, movies, and literature. But there is still much to undo.
When we debate personal or government responsibility for the status of the Black community, we are essentially asking a question about balance. While we must demand racial and economic justice of America, we must also demand personal and communal responsibility in ourselves.
We must build systems that inculcate resilience in our young people that provide buffering relationships and safety, so Black youth experience less community trauma and household challenges. Black America must enforce accountability within the community; we must take responsibility for the outcomes of our youth, especially if no one else will. We must push prosperity mindsets, by all means necessary. We must pursue self-advocacy.
There is much healing to be done, healing and repair that must come from within the Black community and from the American system. It’s both/and, not either/or: America as a nation must become responsive to the traumas created from its past decisions, meaning remaining equity-focused and responsibility focused. And by equity I mean returning to Black Americans what was our due and was systematically withheld. An emphasis on good results is the way to repair the muddled marriage between multigenerational Black Americans, descendants of slaves, and America.
Perhaps with conscious intent, acceptance of mutual responsibility and a real commitment to change, we can heal our nation in this generation.
Pamela “Denise” Long is principal consultant, therapist, and founder of Youthcentrix® Therapy Services, a business focused on implementing trauma-informed practices and diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism (DEIA) at the individual and systems level. Denise is creator of “Humane Antiracism,” an online course that puts relationships at the center of antiracist change. Connect with her on Twitter at @pdeniselong, on LinkedIn, or @YOUTHCENTRIX.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.