That’s whats wrong with black people now. We don’t stick together like the white man does. How many times have you heard this refrain? How many times have you voiced it? The comment is relevant because it addresses the issue of our responsibility to each other.
Does a common ethnic history and shared skin without more, impose a special duty on African-Americans relative to other African-Americans? Does our mutual blackness mandate that we lend a helping hand to any and all African-Americans?
Are African-Americans required to support other African-Americans and/or align their beliefs and persuasions? More importantly, does “sticking together” include accepting abuse and exploitation from within? Just the other day these issues were brought into sharp focus courtesy of a middle-aged black woman in distress.
With horn rimmed glasses positioned half way down her nose and carrying a sack of rumpled papers, she slid back the glass door of our office and entered. Completely unannounced, without invitation or appointment, this total stranger, her shoulders slumped as if bearing the weight of the world, immediately walked into the conference room, placed her bag on the floor and removed a newspaper from the nearest chair. With an audible plop and absent so much as a by your leave, she commanded the seat.
How she came to us is unknown, not that it mattered. Maybe she just wanted to unburden herself; for someone to listen. Not once did she look us in the eye, her gaze cast forever downward.
Her first words were Lord Jesus. What followed next was a disjointed colloquy of personal tragedy.
From what we could determine, she was homeless or soon to be. Halfway through the encounter she began to sob as the burden of despair; the gravity of her situation became too much for her to bear.
So we listened, not to her words but to her pain. And we did what little we could, perhaps establishing that at least sometimes black people do indeed stick together.
Still, we were struck by the social context of the encounter. She asked for help but what she really wanted was money. And she fully believed that our mutual skin color obligated us to help her. This was after all the Martin Luther King Center and we were all black.
The purpose of this essay is not to shade the poor lady. She needed help. But no immutable characteristic standing alone compels a people to coalesce, be it ethnicity, skin color, national origin or gender. No status makes a group monolithic.
The notion that all white people stick together for any reason, much less because they are white is a myth. Whites disagree all the time as do Asian, Native and Hispanic Americans. To disagree is to be human.
Some would nevertheless argue that our situation is different; that our history of forced migration, bondage and oppression, coupled with our clearly identifiable hue, obligates a unity between African-Americans that is not required of other groups? It is further opined that we commit an unpardonably social sin by failing this responsibility.
African-Americans therefore approach the issue of race from the position of what others owe us rather than what we owe to each other. And we often perceive intra ethnic disagreements as racial or group failures rather than socio-economic class distinctions.
Yet, others, i.e., Jews, gays, women and the handicapped have also known historic oppression. While they share a common bond they feel no obligation to always agree with, parent or financially support each other. Nor do they tolerate abuse and exploitation from within.
Clearly, something more is necessary to truly bind a people. And that something is not race. Rather, it is our shared humanity. It is this which compels us to assist our fellow man, whatever their color, gender, or status.
In summary, race is the knot which restrains and limits us. It is the erroneous notion that we cannot overcome our history. We can. It is the false belief that race is the alpha and the omega of any social challenge. It isn’t.
Neither race nor history determines our fate or our responsibilities. it goes without saying that we should help each other. But, African-Americans are not obligated to help all other African-Americans merely because we share the same skin, the false assertion that everyone else sticks together but us notwithstanding.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum