Moving the Needle
Like the slap of an angry pimp there is a hard feel, an indifferent caress to many inner city streets. While teeming with life, a whiff of self loathing, an air of desperation and a sense of resignation dominate the boulevard. Existence is graphic, gritty and asphalt tough. “Fail, destroy, live short and die” is the silent but strident message. “You are nothing and your life means nothing” is the unspoken but unmistakable reply. More depressing virtually the same message, the same reply exists in every urban community in America.
There are many who stand against the tide. Churches feed and minister to the poor, local leaders champion their respective communities and organizations provide jobs and human service assistance to all they can. We honor their service.
Still, our situation continues to deteriorate. Regardless the amount of gas we put in the tank we are not moving the needle. Despite our best efforts, no matter how many programs and initiatives we implement, we are not moving the ball downfield, a problem due in large part to our self-imposed limitations and dogged pursuit of strategies/tactics that have proven to be ineffective.
We focus on effort instead of results, concentrate on programs rather than policies, engage in meaningless symbolism and elevate form over substance. For example, naming a street for a community leader is good. Many deserve such recognition. However, eliminating the crime and urban blight that burdens it is significantly better.
We also cling to the belief that the world owes us something and that we can save everyone when in fact it does not and we can not. Whatever debt is owed to African-Americans can not be collected by African-Americans. And there are many who will not and can not be helped.
More significantly, either because we have fallen prey to self-delusion, don’t know what to do, have become comfortable with old habits or rationalize our ineffectiveness, we refuse to change a losing strategy. We are the blender that has only one speed, the football team that runs the same play on every down or the car hopelessly stuck in the mud yet endlessly spinning its wheels.
We confine ourselves to doing only that which we have always done. In fact we are hostile to change, lashing out at change agents as heretics and non-believers. As a result, things have gotten progressively worse as parents parent or not, families nurture of not and schools educate or not. This is our challenge, a dare we are obligated to meet as follows.
First, the goal must be nothing less than cultural and structural climate change. Our sympathies are often misplaced. There is an unprecedented level of gun violence in the African-American community, caused in large part by an entrenched criminal element that is deadly, determined and preys almost exclusively on other blacks.
We owe nothing to those who would harm us even if they are us. And we will not succeed until and unless we eliminate these and other pollutants that despoil our communities, whoever or whatever they may be.
Nor can we waste time or effort trying to transform those who refuse to be transformed. We should instead focus on helping those who want to or can be helped. And if current leadership will not or can not take us in a new direction, then we must cultivate new leaders, structures and organizations by which to advance the cause.
Second, play the long game. Helping individuals in dire need is saintly. And developing programs and services to mitigate the negative impact of bad policies is often necessary. But playing short is not a winning strategy. Focusing on policy matters rather than limited programs and services as well as education, employment, entrepreneurship, character, decision-making, economics, children and families is playing to win.
Third, vote not only in Presidential elections but in mass, as a block and all the time. If we do nothing else, this will move the needle.
Fourth, pursue tactics and strategies that work by focusing on outcomes rather than input. It is not always the case that doing something is better than doing nothing. We can in fact make matters worse. And all too often we salve our conscious and soothe our souls by engaging in strategies and tactics that simply make us feel better.
Thus, the query is not a matter of input, i.e., what we have done. The core consideration is instead outcomes, i.e., what have we achieved. Our social and moral responsibility is to engage in those activities that create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
In summary, there is not a particle’s worth of difference between the mean streets of Baltimore, Oakland, Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, Tulsa or any other community with a sizeable minority population. They are one and the same, with the same issues and cast of characters.
Given the record levels of black on black violence, teenage pregnancies, homelessness and other social maladies we can no longer conduct business as usual. And considering the vulgarity of drive-bys, the buffoonery of sagging pants and the waste of able-bodied men and women loitering for hours under a dead tree, we have never been so low.
We can blame others if we wish but doing so solves nothing. And while Black lives do indeed matter, the biggest threat to black lives is other black lives. Until and unless we confront these unpleasant yet fundamental realities as well as the other problems that bedevils us, we will never move the needle. We will instead continue to fill a car that we know has a hole in the tank.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum