Friday, January 23, 2009

Peril, promise and the role of Black leadership

By William P. Muhammad

Once the elation and congratulatory praise for our new president has died down, and the sobering realities take center stage, the damage wrought by the former Bush administration will come into full view. From a lack of accountability to the hubris of the last eight years, the Obama administration has inherited an unprecedented mess where international conflict and fiscal woes are threatening to undermine our quality of life.

The economic recession sparked by a meltdown of Wall Street banks and brokerage firms, coupled with America’s loss of credibility and two ongoing wars, should give African-Americans pause for serious introspection. By looking inward perhaps we may become more aware of the bigger picture and decide to become active participants in what is a global reality.

Although some in the Black community may not be aware, issues and conditions overseas do affect us here at home. From the family members of those serving in the armed forces to workers whose jobs were outsourced to foreign labor markets, international issues knock upon our doors when we least expect them.

Regarding America’s national priorities, however, the concerns of Blacks have traditionally ranked low, particularly during times of crisis. In fact, it is safe to say that not even a Black president will solve the plethora of problems affecting the lives of so many African-Americans. He will not necessarily reduce the homicide rates among our youth and he will not bring a halt to the disproportionate number of HIV/AIDS cases affecting Black communities.

Sentencing disparities, police brutality and other entanglements with law enforcement are but the byproducts of a community turned in on itself. Regardless as to who is president, no political figure can do for us what we must do for ourselves. President Barack Obama cannot eliminate the lethargic attitudes permeating so many of our neighborhoods and he cannot solve the problems of fatherless households, a condition that far too often leads our youth to prison.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama implied that his priorities would reflect the American people’s commitment to change, whereby the mind and disposition of government would reflect the mind and disposition of the people. Regarding Black people, however, if our collective condition continues to require external intervention, then we may find our relationship with government as that of a junior partner having little or no say.

Answering our unique problems with our own unique solutions shows our maturity as individuals and as leaders. By making personal responsibility paramount in our lives, we lessen our dependency upon others to do for us what we are capable of doing for self. Through the pursuit of excellence, as Mr. Obama has done, we show the world that Black is synonymous with neither hopelessness nor helplessness; and by way of vision and foresight, we build institutions to serve not only our own needs, but also the needs of our subsequent generations.

In the face of adversity, it is best to be united and of a mind to succeed, but while some of our people have been led to believe that our struggle has ended with the ascension of President Obama, the wise and the prudent among us realize that our true struggle is just beginning. As Black people, we have much “housekeeping” to attend to and it all starts with our determination to make a change in self.

In order to take our rightful place at the table, we must break the shackles of fear, dismiss the old notions of paternalism and stand up as responsible men and women who are both willing and able to work within a new paradigm. Today, Black leadership must expand their agendas beyond that of social inclusion and make the transfer of knowledge the means by which the “playing field” is leveled.

Through the acquisition of profitable information, African-Americans can once and for all establish the economic niche we have unfortunately lacked for so long - the niche, that historically speaking, was denied us through centuries of injustice, government machinations and in some cases ignorance.

In order to overcome the barriers that for years have impeded our progress, Black leadership today must embrace a philosophy of “proactive anticipation.” To elevate our community from the reactionary posture that has unfairly defined it for so long, being of a mind to offer solutions before problems arise becomes a noble goal. From this position, Black people are better able to interact with the greater community, generate opportunities for our youth and build institutions unique to our needs.

In times of trouble, it goes without saying that difficult days require strong and competent leadership. With fears of further unemployment, a steeper decline of the dollar and the possibility of hyper-inflation being not at all unfounded, Americans are grateful to have a president qualified to lead them through the rocky road ahead.

Bold and competent leadership is likewise needed in the Black community where far too often empty rhetoric and posturing take precedent over sound ideas and solutions. Our communities deserve better and for our conditions to be reversed, it is we who must rise to the occasion, take the bull by the horns and make that “change” everyone is talking about.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Doing for self in a Time of Crisis

by William P. Muhammad

According to many political experts, commentators and financial analysts, the United States has entered into a period of uncertainty not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. From lay-offs and factory closings to Wall Street scandals and the collapse of various banking institutions, Americans are hoping that one of the changes promised through an Obama administration will be a revived national economy.

However, with two wars, a volatile Middle East and an ever increasing national debt, Congress is haggling over the gravity and mechanics of Mr. Obama’s ideas. Regarding his proposed “stimulus package,” which intends to pump as much as one trillion dollars into the public and private sectors, Republicans and Democrats alike are bickering over how to jump-start the economy through both tax cuts and continued deficit spending. Leading to questions about higher prices, inflation and a further decline of the dollar, Mr. Obama’s recovery plan may only provide a temporary fix to a much more intrinsic problem.

Though much optimism is accompanying Mr. Obama to the White House, “the pecking order,” often determined by one’s level of economic and organizational activity, may once again find the masses of African-Americans at the back of the bus. With a citizenry already stressed from unemployment, increasing household expenses and mounting debt, Black people, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, are usually among the first to feel the pain of an economic downturn.

Although it is often mentioned that Blacks, as consumers, contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the American economy each year, which surpasses the GDP of most countries, to date Black Americans have yet to harness those dollars for recirculation. While the time is long overdue for us to examine, analyze and correct not only our fiscal priorities, but also the type of thinking that has hampered and undermined our productivity as a people, the monies needed to solve our unique problems continue to hemorrhage through conspicuous consumption, credit card debt and a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.

According to his famous book, “Message to the Blackman in America,” the Honorable Elijah Muhammad wrote that as individuals we must take into consideration the need for unity and understand the implications of pooling our resources. He also wrote that Black people must resist wanton criticism of Black owned businesses and understand that jealousy and envy only destroy our sense of brotherhood. Furthermore, and perhaps unknown by most of his critics, he also wrote: “Observe the operations of the white man. He is successful. He makes no excuses for his failures. He works hard in a collective manner. You do the same.”

While many Black leaders have taught self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-discipline as a means to overcome our daily challenges, the root of our problems has been in our division as outlined in the much referenced “Willie Lynch letter.” With male against female, young against old, light skin against dark skin and a myriad of other exploitable differences within the Black community, it is not difficult to see why we do not control our own local resources.

Although it is not too late to change these self-destructive mindsets, the time to do so is fast running out. Mr. Obama has described the economy as being in a much worse condition than his team originally believed, and he expects for it to get worse before it gets better. But what exactly does this mean within the context of two major wars, an economy in recession and unemployment levels not seen since the end of World War II?

The new economy Mr. Obama is advocating calls for an educated people who will renovate America’s infrastructure and retool its manufacturing base. Requiring skilled tradesmen, technicians and qualified professionals, unskilled labor may be found unnecessary, if not obsolete; therefore, as a people we must have both the will and the desire to achieve greater goals and objectives.

As this country continues to slide deeper into recession, one of Mr. Obama’s plans is to make opportunities available through the expansion of science and technology. As Black people we have an unprecedented opportunity to advance under his ideas, but only if we are motivated to adequately prepare ourselves for them.

Mr. Obama predicts difficult days ahead, and failing to act upon what we know is in our best interests would be a tragic mistake. The incoming administration intends to make room for 3 million new jobs, inviting stiff competition between the unemployed and those entering the job market for the first time; and as always, “it’s the early bird that gets the worm.”

While political leadership debates Mr. Obama’s recovery plan and the pundits argue over who should be blamed, Black folk need to be about the business of recognizing the time and doing what must be done. The time for action is now and for the sake of us as individuals, our families and our people, it’s time to build.

Brother William P. Muhammad is a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso and an author.