How can it be that the African American community as a whole is slipping so far behind other communities so quickly? And how can it be that our educated and intellectual classes are offering so few solutions in the face of our decline? These two perplexing questions deserve close examination. We have been observing laborers and craftspeople that work at street level and can only offer cursory observation to spark comment and invite further analysis. It is such a mystery, though, that paying no attention at all is not an option.
As we traveled along Elizabeth Avenue in Newark we noticed nine individuals emerge from an apartment building. From the sound of their voices they were likely Haitians. They were talking about going to work. It wasn’t until they all walked across the street that it became clear that they were together. It really became clear when they all got into the same car, two in the front and seven in the rear – they were going to work. Each was neatly dressed and appearing well groomed.
On Springfield Avenue in Irvington outside of “Newark Paint” we regularly observe young Central American men waiting to be picked up for day jobs. Only recently did we rejoice to see what appeared to be an African American among them. We have watched this scene for several years now and only recently did we see this black skinned young man who himself might have been Haitian…or Caribbean. We desperately hoped he was African American.
And contractors who are available to do home repairs in Newark are increasingly Portuguese and Caribbean with Central American work crews. We have hired them after exhausting searches for African Americans. What is going on? Even Africans are making their presence felt on the neighborhood economic scene and developing a reputation for reliability. All this while too many African Americans stand idly by with seemingly nothing to do. What’s up?
We have concluded that much of this dynamic of the disappearing African American worker has to do with work ethics. It appears that somewhere along the way far too many of us have adopted a code of mediocrity by which to live. We have conformed our work habits to the lowest common denominator and relied on a false sense of race loyalty and entitlement to provide us opportunity. Now we find ourselves betrayed by both.
For too long our communities settled for our shortcomings and made excuses for inadequacies. The result was even worse performance on our part. Folks finally got fed up. This ultra bad behavior opened the door for competition. Even a loving people would take just so much. Exhausted by poor service they reached beyond race and ethnicity in favor of good service. There they found others, often immigrants eager to work hard, show up on time and have the basic means (transportation and tools) to complete a job.
The “fed up” phenomenon is quickly spreading to other areas such as schools and politics where African Americans dominate leadership. It will be interesting to dissect the reasons that we are losing control over these institutions more rapidly than anyone expected. Could it be the mediocrity syndrome rearing its head again? Accepting lower standards has become more common for institutions both led and highly frequented by African Americans. We find similarities with some other so-called minority groups as well. But the African American community has spawned such a wealth of talented offspring. One could reasonably expect a cogent response to the sociocultural epidemic that is playing out among those who have been left behind.
African American schoolchildren in non-performing schools that are plagued by the all too familiar problems of poor urban communities should be able to anticipate relief from the thought and efforts of their own educators and intellectuals. The same is true for the poor and our MBA’s and Economists. It is curious that given the magnitude of the problems and the magnitude of our peoples’ accomplishments there is little connectivity that evidences the likelihood of any near term solutions.
African American Newark and similar communities across the country are left wanting and needing for many reasons. High on the list are class distinctions and resulting separation between those who have resources and those who do not. Add to that a healthy dose of disinterest and carelessness and we find ourselves where we are. Yes, there is plenty to say for people helping themselves and we are staunch advocates of that. But the ones who have walked away scarcely even look back these days. And that attitude fertilizes a calamity. Plain old caring could change a lot.
Among most peoples there is a group concern and consideration. There is a pride and kinship that causes a sharing of pain and joy and a sense of togetherness that breeds group responsibility. It is first exhibited in families and ported out to communities. We had that once and we desperately need it again. If we fail to relearn the lessons of genuine concern for one another our slippage will continue. It’s time for group focus and effort. So how shall we begin? The greater responsibility lies with the ones with the greater wealth and knowledge.
The old boxing adage that “you can run but you can’t hide” was never truer than for African Americans fleeing the seamier side of black culture. When we are absent from the company of our perceived benefactors, surely they take note of our shortcomings. Surely they wonder why we have not done more for our own. And even if this conversation goes on outside our earshot, we should experience a hint of humiliation. In the end, there is no escape but there can be redemption.
October 2, 2007