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Peniel E. Joseph: An agenda for black community in 2014

  • The Root
  • Published Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, at 12 a.m.

As we enter into a new year, the black community should remain focused on five key areas that are vital to the promotion of racial justice and economic equality in 2014:

•  Reducing violence in black communities nationwide. Chicago’s violence-plagued communities have received the most national attention, in part because of President Obama’s ties to the Windy City but also due to its prolific number of murders. Local activists have done heroic work to stave off increased gun violence, efforts that have drawn the participation of national civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton. Unfortunately, this has not been enough to stanch the bleeding. Obama must prioritize the issue of violence in Chicago and other predominantly black, brown and poor communities as the national crisis that it is.

•  Public school should help black children fulfill the American dream. The achievement gap between black and white students in America continues to grow. Too many black children attend overcrowded and underfunded public schools that are racially and economically segregated from mainstream America. Instead of learning to become critical thinkers and tomorrow’s leaders, our children are suspended from school at higher rates than their white counterparts, and introduced to the criminal justice system in elementary school. To be young, black and poor in America is to be confined to some of the nation’s most dangerous, violence-ridden and vulnerable spaces. 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education desegregation case. What instantly became a symbol of racial progress is slowly devolving into one of national shame.

•  Mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders must end. Deteriorating public schools have become a feeder system into the nation’s prison-industrial complex. The drug wars of the 1980s turned poor black neighborhoods, including public schools, into incubators of racial injustice and oppression. The social, political and economic stigma attached to felony drug convictions has been defined by legal scholar Michelle Alexander as the New Jim Crow, a new caste system that contains striking parallels with the separate and unequal regimes of racial injustice constructed in slavery’s aftermath. Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, and the black community should utilize this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to push to end a system that discredits our democracy.

•  Renewing the American dream for African-Americans requires a bold jobs program, especially in inner cities. Problems of violence, education and mass incarceration are intimately linked to black America’s jobs crisis. The unemployment rate for blacks is double that of whites, but in many poor communities the disparities are even more staggering. Chronic unemployment and underemployment fractures families and neighborhoods and chokes off hope. Now is the time for civil rights activists, community leaders, elected officials and, yes, Obama to focus on a national and targeted jobs program. Obama can start by issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for employees doing work related to federal projects.

•  We need to teach our children the true meaning of racial justice. 2014 promises to be another year filled with well-deserved commemoration for hard-fought civil rights legislation, anniversaries and demonstrations. Yet if we focus on the past, without providing meaningful context for the present, we can obscure the complexity of the very struggles we seek to celebrate. The civil rights movement was a long, continuous struggle for justice in America, not a bedtime story with a beginning, middle and end. “Rosa sat, so Martin could run, so that Barack could fly,” is a nice sentiment but makes for poor history. We can best honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and the countless unnamed souls who helped usher in a new freedom era by acknowledging the large task that is ahead of us. This means that even as we bask in the hard-won achievements of the recent past, including the election and re-election of America’s first black president, we have a clear-eyed picture of the challenges that remain.

The largest difference between the black community in 1964 and now is that 50 years ago, we knew we were being oppressed and made proactive, heroic and self-sacrificing efforts to transform systems of injustice and redeem America’s soul. As we begin the new year, let’s reclaim the style, voice and courage of this prophetic tradition of social transformation.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a history professor at Tufts University.

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