The proverb says, “With all thy getting, get understanding.”
Understanding is the ability to perceive and discern a situation. Webster says it's the power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories.
A critically important component in understanding is making sure the premise on which your understanding rests is correct. If the premise of your understanding is wrong, every action that flows from that misunderstanding will lead to failure and frustration. The correct understanding leads to correct action that produces satisfactory results.
Let's use medicine as an example. If a doctor gets a diagnosis wrong, meaning he or she misunderstands what's wrong with the patient, they will recommend a course of treatment that will not successfully address whatever ails you. When the diagnosis is correct, the proposed course of treatment can have a high probability of success.
The commentary by Jason Q. Purnell in last week’s St. Louis American captured the fundamental assumption of black life in America and provided the necessary premise for the understanding on which all our political strategies and tactics must rest.
Jason described the clinical nature of the racism that's a permanent part of the American character and the long-term or chronic nature of that racism. His referencing of two black intellectual giants, W.E.B. DuBois (“The Souls of Black Folks”) and James Baldwin (“The Fire Next Time”) speaks to the historical context and the emotional angst of black life and lives in America.
What does this have to do with black politics in St. Louis or America? Effective political strategy depends upon a proper understanding of who or what is the adversary and under what conditions that adversary will be engaged.
For black Americans, our adversary is not right-wing Republicans, the Klan or any other assorted nut cases we waste too much time focused on. Our adversary – existential enemy, really – is white privilege and the racism that’s its rationale.
Jason refers to the disease of racism and its seeming intractable nature as part of the American cultural DNA. Given that, you could say racism is a chronic disease or condition. Whether you consider racism a disease or white privilege a condition, like anything that’s chronic, they are not going any place soon, if ever.
This is fundamental to understanding what it means to be black in America. White privilege will not be defeated by affirmative action, inclusion, integration, civil rights or voting rights. These are all important battles in our war against white privilege, but they didn’t defeat the enemy. They are gains that must be defended because white privilege gives ground, but it doesn’t give up. It regroups and counter-attacks. It always has: Jim Crow was the counter-attack to Reconstruction.
We must resist the notion that America has changed because America is changing, that someday in the not-too-distant future we will prevail over white privilege. If we could spare our children the burden of this war we would, but we can’t. So our responsibility is to ensure they are prepared to continue this struggle that’s their inheritance. Wyclef Jean reminds us, “Though your load may be heavy, it’s the weight that makes you strong.”
How do we ensure they’re ready to carry this load, the weight of being black in America? It begins by giving them a correct understanding of the assumptions of black life in America, and this is why what Jason Purnell had to say needs to be heard.
Mike Jones is a member of the St. Louis American editorial board and the State Board of Education.