During last year’s Democratic mayoral primary, I was regularly asked by a diverse cross-section of the black community, “Why can’t black politicians, why can’t we as a community, get behind one candidate in order to capture the Mayor’s Office?” While I would tactfully explain why they were a tactically a day late and a dollar short, I realized the answer to their question was tied to a question I had asked Eric Vickers some seven years ago. That question was: Are we still a black community?
Inherent in the question about the mayoral race was we have always done this because we’ve always had to do this. So what has happened to us that we can no longer do what used to come so naturally?
You could argue that the black community was unified around one mission for 100 years after emancipation: civil rights. While the 13th Amendment eliminated our status as property, the 14th and 15th amendments made us full citizens, in theory. The reality of American white supremacy reasserted itself through a system of apartheid called Jim Crow that used physical intimidation and the rule of law to deny black Americans their inalienable rights.
Securing civil rights for us as a community was the only way to guarantee we would ever enjoy them as an individuals. Because the one thing that hadn’t changed was we were all still equally oppressed under the yoke of white supremacy. After emancipation, there developed a symbiotic relationship between members of all strata in the black community and between the black leadership class and the black community with a single focus and mission: whatever you do, however you do it, advance the race.
In the 1960s we finally defeated Jim Crow and began to enjoy the status of full citizenship. Or so we thought. Jim Crow yielded to civil rights, but we never laid a glove on our real enemy, white privilege.
But civil rights did change things. In fact, it changed everything and in ways we could have never anticipated. After civil rights, black Americans began to experience personal choice for the first time in our 350 years in North America. While the choices were restricted at first, as we discovered the market and the market discovered us, those choices expanded. We could exercise our personal options independently of each and without regard for each other. We began acting just like white Americans, but they had the advantage of white privilege and we were still black and would soon find ourselves without the benefit and protection of the black community. Because with every one of those individual choices, we became less a community and increasingly unable to defend our collective selves against American racism.
Nowhere is this change more evident than the changing nature of black institutions and black leadership. The black church went from the civic foundation of the black community to struggling to maintain relevancy and membership in historical black communities. Black preachers went from civil rights leaders to prosperity pimps.
Another institution undergoing radical negative change was politics. On their worst day, black politicians were committed to advancing the race. Black politicians were judged and valued based upon how they advanced the collective interest of the community. Black politics used to be focused on housing, jobs, education and health care. When is the last time you’ve heard a black political argument around these issues?
Black politicians also began to see politics no longer as a team sport. This is the answer to last year’s mayoral race. We could not do what we used to do because that’s not who we are anymore. Our time in post-civil-rights America has been like Israel wandering around the desert after leaving Egypt. During our enslavement and after emancipation, we knew who we were and what we were to each other. That’s no longer true.
We need a new theory of the case, a new paradigm, of what it means to be black in America. The theory has to address a new fundamental fact: This is no longer a white country and, short of a genocide (which white Americans are capable of), it will never be white again. The question at the beginning of the 21st century is: Can we produce a critical mass of black thinkers, writers, scholars and artists who will do for us now what that cohort led by W.E.B. DuBois did for us at the beginning of the 20th century?
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.