Black Man Emerging: Facing the Past and Seizing a Future in Americaby Joseph L. White, James H. Cones
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Two psychologists fashion a moving social portrait that reflects the authors' personal views on the struggle against oppression and for self-determination by black men. Illustrations.
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The prevailing image of Black men in America is an overwhelmingly negative one. As two Black men who have been subjected over the course of our lifetimes to the negative image recorded in history and statistics, and reported by the various news media, it is our hope to cast a new, more positive light on African-American masculinity.
In the chorus of negative reports and opinions, the voice of Black men themselves is rarely heard. While we acknowledge and sympathize with the oppression felt by other minority groups, and by our Black Sisters in particular, they are not the focus of this book. In the past ten years, the intensely negative view of Black men has far surpassed the disfavor in which other oppressed peoples are held. Black men have been typecast as America's villains. It is our desire to show their true measure. We were taught by the Black men in our lives to carve out a positive template of Black male identity; we hope that this book will serve, in turn, as a message of hope to other Black menand as a lesson to society as a whole, so that people may not only better understand the individual Black man but also comprehend the challenges he faces in his life. It was this same spirit of hope, optimism, and rebirth that inspired the Million Man March.
For seven hours on a sunny fall day in October 1995, upwards of 800,000 Black men (some say at least a million) stepped out of the shadows of invisibility and negative stereotypes to gather on the Mall in our nation'scapital to remind America of their presence. They were peaceful and respectful. No incidents of violence marred the day and there was only one arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct. In what was billed as the Million Man March, there were Brothers (African-American men) as far as the eye could see. Wide-angle lenses couldn't capture the whole crowd. Although White folks joked that most of the Black men were able to attend the march because they were welfare freeloaders, in actuality, the Brothers came from all walks of life. There were northerners and southerners; urbanites and Brothers from rural areas; doctors and blue-collar workers; policemen, attorneys, and ex-convicts; young and old; students and school dropouts; poor and wealthy; employed, underemployed, and unemployed; and gang members and ex-gang members. They sang, prayed, hung out with each other, listened to the speeches, and shared brotherly love and fellowship. Using the Black call-response form of dialogue, the speakers and the audience signified, played the dozens, and put the bad mouth on White folks. But, more importantly, they affirmed each other and vowed to take responsibility for their actions. They were there to remind America that the business of race and equality will not be sidetracked, even at a time when there is a conservative backlash against programs designed to help Blacks win congressional seats, gain admission to universities and graduate schools, secure high-paying jobs, and attain lucrative business contracts with government agencies. Black men are a force to be reckoned with; they will not disappear or fade away quietly into obscurity.
Although the press concentrated on the controversy and drama surrounding the convener of the march, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and speculated on why retired General Colin Powell, the most popular Black man in America, wasn't there, the real message of the Million Man March was bigger than either Minister Farrakhan or General Powell. The real message sent from the sea of Black men gathered on the Mall was a grassroots affirmation of spiritual strength, dignity, atonement, hope, responsibility, love, and forgiveness. Warring enemy gang members sought forgiveness for past killings and reached out to each other. Absent fathers pledged to reunite with their children and guide them away from the destruction of drugs and crime. Husbands and boyfriends promised to respect their wives and girlfriends. The marchers showed America that Black men were not an endangered species. They were willing to commit themselves to the virtues of self-reliance and take responsibility for improving their lives and the communities they live in. Isn't personal responsibility and family values what politicians like President Bill Clinton and conservatives like former Vice President Dan Quayle are talking about? Some called it the largest family-values rally America has ever witnessed. Others said it was the greatest event in the history of African-American men.
The legions of men assembled at the Mall in Washington, D.C., were also there to protest the dismal sociological and economic conditions of life in America that many Black males encounter as they make the passage from cradle to grave. Some sections of inner cities where African-American men reside resemble bombed-out European cities after World War II. Black men are more likely than their White male counterparts to be homicide victims, high school dropouts, unemployed, incarcerated or on parole; and they are more likely to have a shorter life expectancy, debilitating medical problems, and poor occupational training. Statistically speaking, being born a male with White skin confers certain advantages with respect to education, employment, career advancement, political and economic power, health care, and neighborhood residence. Conversely, dark skin places an undue burden on Black men in their struggle for self-definition and identity, education, access to networks providing employment and career information, political and economic power, and decent neighborhoods in which to rear their children.
The Million Man March was a profound psychological vindication for Black men who have been cast in public debates and political discussions as representing the low end of the bell curve measuring mental ability, as Willie Hortons, and as unqualified affirmative action hires and welfare freeloaders. The Brothers showed America an indomitable spirit that will not be denied, and they reminded their fellow citizens that it is an error to stereotype all Black men as dangerous, drug-hustling criminals, gangsta rappers, and TV sitcom clowns. Just like everyone else, most Black men have jobs, pay taxes, raise kids, struggle to pay their bills, and work hard to achieve a better life for their families and their children.
After reciting a pledge to improve themselves and their communities mentally, spiritually, morally, economically, and politically, the marchers departed from Washington with fresh resolve. They promised to get their lives together and heal the broken homes, deteriorating schools, and violence-ravaged streets of their communities, while working to empower Black men with the tools and skills to transform their lives. In July 1996, organizers of the original march (October 16, 1995) held a two-day follow-up conference in Chicago, which drew participants from around the country. The conference was sponsored by Million Man March, Inc., and the National Leadership Summit. Speakers included Louis Farrakhan, who called for more Black political participation. The chair of the conference, the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, former director of the NAACP, told the news media that the purpose of the meeting was to draft an urban policy agenda and start the process of building a God-centered mass movement. Among the urban policy agenda items were combating drugs; obtaining quality education, more job training, and better medical care; preserving public housing; revitalizing affirmative action; reversing the expansion of the nation's prison system; carving out a bigger role for Blacks in the nation's economy; and challenging the news media to confront White racism on TV, in newspapers, and other instruments of mass communication. As part of an organizing effort geared toward expanding political participation, millions of people across the country were informed of the urban agenda drafted by the conference. A national political convention was planned for September 20, 1996, to be followed by a world day of atonement on October 16, 1996the first anniversary of the Million Man Marchat the United Nations in New York.
Spike Lee's October 1996 film Get on the Bus, released on the anniversary, is a docudrama that attempts to capture the spirit of a group of Black men who journey to Washington to participate in the march. Get on the Bus follows the group on a three-day trip via Spotted Owl Coach from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles to the capital. The characters, portrayed by actors, represent a composite of male personality types in the Black community bound together by their desire to participate in the event. There is an old-timer, left over from the 1960s, who still addresses the Brothers with Black power salutes, a UCLA film student and student of African drums, a gay couple struggling to keep their relationship alive, a self-centered actor who wants to outshine movie star Denzel Washington, a conservative entrepreneur, and a follower of the Nation of Islam. There are also an estranged father and son; the son is a gangbanger ordered chained to his father by the courts. (The men on the bus call the chained father and son "The Defiant Ones.")
The film focuses on the psychological and social challenges African-American men face as they struggle to define who they are, build and maintain relationships, cope with racism, and search for strengths in the African-American way of being. On their three-day journey, the men engage in what can be described as a combination of a nonstop talkathon and intensive group psychotherapy. They discuss, debate, and argue about such topics as gang violence, male-female relationships, sexual preference, politics, Black Nationalism, skin color, and Black-White conflicts. One of the major dilemmas confronting Black men in America is brought to the forefront when the Spotted Owl bus is arbitrarily stopped by Tennessee state troopers who think the men may be transporting drugs.
For the men on the bus trip, the ultimate essence of the march is not a cure-all for the ills facing Black men in America, nor is it a coronation of the march leader, Louis Farrakhan. What the men experience in the process is a journey into self-discovery, personal empowerment, and reconciliation. Looking inward, they discover the power to create a better vision of themselves.
Two major conclusions can be drawn from the Million Man March. First, race is an inescapable complication in American life that must be resolved. Whether it be overt or covert, individual or institutional, social or economic, blatant or subtle, racism needs to end before Black males can start life on a level playing field of equal opportunity. The second conclusion to be drawn is that Black men are willing to take responsibility for initiating interventions that will transform themselves and the Black community. They are willing to provide constructive, responsible definitions of masculinity and to work to enhance the development of skills and abilities necessary to achieve an optimal level of masculine functioning. However, no amount of individual or group transformation will change the economic or social obstacles with which Black men are confronted in a racist society. Solving problems surrounding racism will require the joint efforts of Blacks and Whites.
The Black/White Perceptual Gap
A discernible difference between Blacks and Whites with respect to how race and race-related events are perceived and assessed interferes with the search for biracial solutions to the social and economic roadblocks Black American males encounter. The reactions to the not-guilty verdict handed down in the O. J. Simpson murder trial in the fall of 1995 not only confirmed that race is a major factor in American society but brought out into the open the vast perceptual gap between Blacks and Whites.
Several polls taken after the trial showed that two-thirds of Whites believed that O. J. was guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman. Conversely, two-thirds of Blacks believed that he was innocent. While Blacks and Whites seemingly viewed the same trial on TV, they apparently focused on different events. Whites looked at the overwhelming evidence indicating that O. J. was at the scene of the crime and had a history of domestic violence, and concluded that the police would not have charged him if he were not guilty. Blacks, based on their long history of oppression and brutality by the police and the criminal justice system, had no problem believing that the evidence could have been tampered with and that the police picked on O. J. because he was a successful Black man married to a White woman.
Detective Mark Fuhrman's use of the word "Nigger," captured on audiotape during interviews with the screenwriter Laura Hart McKinney (after having denied he'd used it in the past ten years), convinced Blacks that racist police officers involved in the case could have been motivated to set O. J. up, or, at the very least, had tampered with the evidence. Aware of the fact that Blacks live in an experiential/psychological space that contains a long history of individual and collective racism and negative experience with the police, the lead attorney for Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, had no problem playing the race card. In addition to bringing up Fuhrman's use of the N-word, Cochran appealed to the predominantly Black jury's racial suspicions by tossing out a list of racial buzzwords and quotations from famous Black figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass, who, Cochran implied, would have voted for acquittal. Not surprisingly, his strategy worked. In a press conference after the trial, Cochran admitted he had interjected the race card into the trial. He indicated that he would have been held liable for malpractice if he had passed by a perfect opportunity to appeal to a predominantly Black jury's suspicions about fairness in the criminal justice system.
Bypassing lengthy deliberations on the mountain of evidence presented in the ten-month trial, pointing toward Simpson's guilt, the jury handed down the not-guilty verdict in less than five hours. The quickness of the verdict surprised the attorneys, the presiding judge, the news media, and the American public. In TV pictures released as the verdict was being read, Whites appeared to be stunned, shocked, and angry. Blacks in colleges, beauty shops, barbershops, and restaurants were shown cheering and clapping. Ironically, Black women in a shelter for battered women cheered the not-guilty verdict despite strong evidence suggesting Simpson had a history of beating his wife.
How can two groups of people watching the same widely publicized trial on TV and hearing it discussed on talk shows come to such different conclusions? Why the vast perceptual gap? The most straightforward explanation is that Blacks and Whites live in different experiential/psychological worlds, which ultimately leads to different perceptions and interpretations of race-related events. Based on a long history of abuse by law enforcement, Blacks did not find it hard to believe that the police could have manipulated the evidence against O. J. Whites, on the other hand, could not believe that the police would charge a prominent Black man with double murder if he were not guilty.
Public opinion polls consistently show that Blacks and Whites interpret racial events differently, view the meaning of racial progress differently, and assess racial spokesmen from a different perspective. In a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 1991, 66 percent of Whites said they felt the civil rights movement had gone far enough or too far. This may explain why Whites are showing much greater opposition to special programs like affirmative action, designed to give Blacks and other minorities a boost. In the same poll, 86 percent of Blacks said the civil rights movement had not gone far enough. Blacks generally feel that while the nation has made major strides toward equality and opportunity, much remains to be done. More recent evidence that Blacks and Whites continue to view racial issues through different lenses comes from a 1997 survey by the Gallup Organization. In the poll, 58 percent of Whites thought that the quality of life for Black Americans had become better over the past decade, whereas only 33 percent of Blacks surveyed thought that the quality of life for Black Americans had improved. Looking at the current racial scene, which seems to be a mix of stalled progress and retrogression, many Blacks feel a sense of despair. Seventy-six percent of Black college graduates in the poll said that race relations would always be a troublesome problem in America.
Compounding the Black/White perceptual split in viewing racial concerns is the fact that many Whites cling to racial stereotypes. A poll conducted in 1991 by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found that 56 percent of Whites believed Blacks were likely to be less intelligent than Whites. In another poll conducted by the University of Chicago, Whites said that Blacks were more likely than Whites to prefer living on welfare. It is generally acknowledged by researchers and racial experts that many Whites tend to associate Blacks with crime, homelessness, drugs, and AIDS.
Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader who orchestrated the Million Man March, is perceived differently by Blacks and Whites. A poll by Time magazine taken shortly after the march found that 59 percent of Blacks felt Minister Farrakhan spoke the truth; only 12 percent of Whites felt the same way. Fifty-six percent of Blacks thought that Farrakhan was a good role model for Black youths, as compared to 12 percent of Whites. Finally, 50 percent of Blacks viewed him as a positive force in the Black community. Only 33 percent of Whites saw him in the same light.
From the perspective of the Black community, the accelerated pace of racial progress set into motion by the civil rights movement of the 1960s has stalled since the beginning of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Programs to increase Black enrollment in universities and professional schools, ensure representation of Black elected officials in predominantly Black communities, increase access of women and minorities to government contracts, and implement affirmative action hiring are being threatened or eliminated. Conservative politicians have become very skillful in the use of innuendo, employing loaded words like welfare, drugs, crime, quotas, and merit-based hiring, to heap abuse on Black males. At the same time, they call for the building of more prisons, presumably to house additional Black males, who are already overrepresented in the prison population. Neoconservative magazines like The New Republic and the American Spectator routinely put the bad mouth on Black welfare mothers and at the same time call for cuts in educational, housing, and health care and nutrition programscuts that negatively affect Black families and children in need of assistance.
At the same time that conservative politicians decry welfare and crime, they cleverly avoid discussing corporate and middle-class welfare and White-collar crime. One of the best-kept secrets in America is that the biggest welfare recipients are corporate and middle-class Whites. In 1994, Labor Secretary Robert Reich noted that the United States spends billions of dollars annually in corporate welfare, mostly m the form of tax breaks and subsidies. Executives who have been laid off receive unemployment insurance, well-to-do senior citizens draw sizable social security checks, homeowners deduct mortgage interest, middle-class college students get educational loans, and businesses and farmers rely on federal subsidies.
In 1997, a group of liberal members of the U.S. House of Representatives estimated that the government could save $261 billion over five years, more than enough to balance the federal budget, if tax breaks for government programs the congressional representatives referred to as corporate welfare were reduced. Among the corporate welfare programs and tax write-offs the representatives would end or reduce are those that benefit insurance firms, companies doing business overseas, business executives who incur entertainment expenses, and large and profitable multinational corporations.
In the Savings and Loan Association scandal of the 1980s, White businessmen lipped off the government for over $100 billion, yet only a few were prosecuted and served jail time. The White men who run Wall Street investment companies annually line their pockets with millions of dollars gained in illegal insider trading deals to which Black men don't have access.
The concept of affirmative action has been demonized by conservatives and neoconservatives. Through endless repetition of loaded words and phrases like color blind, content of character, merit-based employment, lowering standards, reverse discrimination, quotas, unqualified hirings and university admissions, they have saturated discussions of affirmative action with negative implications and sinister stories (mostly false) of qualified Whites being denied opportunities in order to meet mandated quotas for hiring or admitting unqualified or inferior Blacks and other minorities. Political ads show a glum-looking White man telling someone he wasn't hired because the company was required to give the job to an unqualified minority. Opponents of affirmative action seem to be trying to convince the American public that abolishing it will solve all of our racial problems. In the strange twists of racial logic that typify America's racial scene, White conservatives accuse Blacks of being unfair and dividing America. The oppressor, in essence, is accusing the victim of doing the oppressing.
In the venom that has been heaped on affirmative action to create a divisive issue between the races, the original purpose of affirmative action programs has been obscured. These programs started in the 1960s as a way of beginning to level an uneven playing field of opportunity, the result of centuries of racial discrimination. Speaking in 1965 at Howard University, a predominantly Black institution, President Lyndon Johnson made it crystal clear when he said that 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow de facto and de jure segregation prevented Black men and women from being where they would be in society if, historically, they had been given the opportunity to compete fairly. Given that White folks had an over 300-year head start, it was obvious that something had to be done to give Blacks a chance to start the process of catching up. Affirmative action was an attempt to do this by creating special outreach programs to increase minority representation in education, job training, employment and promotions, business development, and the holding of government contracts. In President Johnson's view, society had a responsibility to take active (affirmative) steps to right the wrongs and ensure greater opportunity for people who had been denied the advantages granted to White Americans.
Despite the furor surrounding affirmative action, labeled as reverse discrimination, and the repeated accusations that White men are being deprived of jobs, Blacks are still a long way from equality in high-paying jobs, education, government contracts, and executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. Measurable benefits for Blacks in terms of increases in wages and employment have been quite small. Bureau of Labor statistics show that Whites still hold 88.8 percent of managerial positions. Prospective Black home buyers are still being denied mortgage loans in certain neighborhoods, and Black-owned businesses are still grossly underrepresented in securing government contracts. The fact that Blacks have not achieved parity after thirty years of affirmative action means there is still a long way to go before equal opportunity becomes a reality, despite what the critics claim. Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco and former speaker of the California State Assembly, one of America's most influential Black politicians, compares the critics of affirmative action to a group of cheaters at a card game who have illicitly collected a stack of chips. When discovered, they want to keep playing without paying back the chips they obtained unfairly. Like the players in the poker game, Whites have benefited from chips gained unfairly. Now they don't want to give back a few of their advantages to help those who have been denied a chance to catch up.
Conservative Whites, who still have the advantages that come with skin color, now frequently quote the Reverend Martin Luther King's statements about how he hoped his children would be judged on the content of their character rather than on the color of their skin. People who dismissed King as Communist-inspired while he was alive now deify his call for a color-blind society. They carefully omit his call for a beloved community where all men and women could sit down together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood. At the core of King's theology was a belief in diversity, inclusion, and shared decision making between Blacks and Whites. He believed America could undergo a spiritual transformation so that the races could come together in harmony and mutual respect.
Dr. King left behind a clear record of support for programs like affirmative action to move America toward racial equity and an expanding base of opportunity for Blacks. In his major speeches and writings, recently published in one large volume, Testament of Hope (1996), edited by James Washington, King argued convincingly that society must engage in some form of affirmative social engineering to help African-Americans overcome the disadvantages of centuries of economic, political, and social discrimination. In his book Why We Can't Wait, published in 1963, he wrote that given America's long history of racism, African-Americans deserved special compensation in jobs, education, and other areas. In 1967, writing in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, King encouraged America to do something positive for African-Americans after hundreds of years of discrimination. In still other writings and speeches, he continued to point out that since society had already set precedents for special opportunities in education, bank loans, and civil service to be granted military veterans and other groups, society could surely do something affirmative to right wrongs where Blacks were concerned. It is a supreme irony that the concept of color blindness, which Dr. King used in standing up for the rights of Blacks, is now being used by White conservatives to maintain an unequal status quo.
Facing the Problem of Race
Before Black men can take their rightful place in society, America will have to resolve the inescapable complications associated with race. Finding effective solutions to racial problems will require the combined efforts of Blacks and Whites working together. What's missing in America, however, is an ongoing, candid Black/White dialogue about the role of race in society, a dialogue about how it influences attitudes, perceptions, opinions, and behaviors and how it confers advantages and disadvantages and opens up or closes down opportunities. Race is a topic that Americans are uncomfortable discussing, however. After major events like the Rodney King beating, the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, the O. J. Simpson trial verdicts, or the Million Man March, race becomes a major discussion topic for a few days, then disappears from public attention.
The Black/White perceptual gap, compounded by generations of suspicion and hostility, interferes with the mutual understanding and communication that is essential for effective biracial problem solving. Black and White Americans are like two people who have a bad marriage but for complex reasons have decided not to divorce or even establish separate households. A divorce would cost too much in alimony and involve splitting up the assets, so they are faced with the dilemma of trying to get along on a day-to-day basis. In order to solve common household problems and domestic issues, they must learn to communicate. Some years ago, Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, called for a "divorce" between Black and White Americans. Reasoning that White folks were inherently evil, he felt that the best course of action for Blacks would be to have their own nation of several states inside United States borders. The U.S. government would provide the land and start-up money as reparations for the riches White America had amassed during 350 years of exploiting Blacks as slaves and cheap labor. The government balked; the plan was too costly politically, legally, and economically, so Blacks and Whites remain bound together in the same geographic space. Like the husband and wife in the bad marriage, the cost of divorce or physical separation is so high that we must sit down and work out a way of living together in the same household.
Blacks and Whites do not have to love each other to get along, but they must be able to communicate openly and frankly in order to solve pressing social problems of mutual interest. To reach across the perceptual divide and achieve the level of mutual understanding and empathic awareness that is an essential condition for productive dialogue, each side will have to express, confront, and come face-to-face with intense, and sometimes painful, emotions. Blacks will most surely express anger and resentment about America's racial history and their personal experiences of what it is like to live in a society where Whites control the political, economic, and legal power, as well as the mass media. Blacks are likely to be a bit more reluctant to express hurt and fear, as it is not easy for them to reveal their vulnerability in front of Whites. In a frank dialogue, Whites would probably express anger and resentment toward Blacks for wanting what Whites perceive as special preferences in university admissions, employment opportunities, career advancement, business loans, and awarding of government contracts. Whites will also, no doubt, accuse Blacks of not taking responsibility for the violence, crime, drugs, teen pregnancies, welfare, and gangs that plague inner-city neighborhoods. For their part, however, the African-American men who attended the Million Man March clearly signaled a willingness to engage in self-examination and take their share of responsibility for improving the conditions that hamper the progress of Black males. Efforts are already under way in the Black community to address issues involving fatherhood, mentorship and manhood training, education, nonviolent resolution of conflict, helping high-risk youths, prison and drug rehabilitation, and outreach to gangs. Several of these interventions are discussed in Chapters 14 and 15.
Along the way in a mutual effort to solve racial issues, both Blacks and Whites will have to look within and examine troublesome thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and concerns. The three most difficult problems for Whites, no doubt, will be developing empathy for the Black experience, acknowledging that White skin carries certain advantages in American life, and working through the psychological defense mechanisms that have prevented them from understanding the devastating effects that centuries of overt and covert oppression have had on the lives of African-American men. Black men will have to face up to their responsibility for the Black-on-Black crime and violence in the inner cities, teen pregnancies, paternal absence, and family deterioration. A more detailed discussion of the call for biracial dialogue is presented in the final chapter of this book.
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Meet the Author
Joseph L. White is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine and the recipient of the 1994 Citation of Achievement in Psychology and Community Service from President Bill Clinton. James H. Cones III works at the University of California, Irvine, where he is Lecturer in Psychology and African American Studies and Clinical Services Director and Assistant Director of the Counseling Center. He is also Lecturer in Women's Studies and African American Studies at UCLA.
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