By Christopher Wilson from CDT partner Alliance San Diego Mobilization Fund
Growing up in Detroit, my early life was one of struggle, revolution, and self-hatred. We struggled to survive poverty, a brutal social system built to tear black families apart, and government-sponsored mass incarceration. Black History Month is always an important time in my life. It’s a time of reflection, empowerment, and recommitment. Black folks have fought in the revolution for an endless era — since before the inception of the grand idea of a democratic republic called these United States — for the same control over our destiny as other people. The plague of white supremacy, like an untreatable cancer metastasizing in the form of self-hatred, state-sponsored violence, poverty, criminalization, and so much else, has nearly killed the spirit of black communities across this country. This experience of otherness, better yet nothing-ness is at the root of what it means to be Black in America, for most.
Building power in these Black communities that have been picked apart physically, mentally and financially has always been difficult. Building power in these communities is about making the invisible visible, making the unheard heard, and making the impossible possible. For sure, there have been periods when building black power has been more successful than others. But too often that success has been defined by, and limited to, those at the top gaining access (education, wealth, health and prosperity) and the bottom being pitted against itself in a fight for survival.
Building Black power today, we recognize the gains made by our predecessors and the mainstream reactions to their efforts. A big one being that “building power” in Black communities is synonymous with “taking power” in the minds of average white Americans, even progressive ones. Most Black liberation activists are, and were, cognizant of this prohibitive view of the movement and its’ agents of change. They work[ed] very hard to cultivate relationships and align with white progressives, sometimes only to be denied and other times only ceremoniously included in progressive leadership. We must recognize that no number of headlines, no number of election victories, and not even putting a Black man in the White House has resulted in the change necessary for Black communities to reach their full potential in America.
The top-down approach, reflected by electing charismatic and visionary leaders, has not worked to improve the situation for most of Black America. Moreover, in most places the situation has gotten worse. Building Black power does not work with a one-size-fits-all approach. A visionary Black leader surrounded by a mostly white team of advisors cannot alone mitigate the issues and historical oppression existing in communities of color, especially Black communities. Black power is the ability to move the information, decisions, policies and programs necessary to end racial and economic oppression, which is at the root of our situation.
In San Diego, a side-effect of building Black power is a new pipeline of Black leadership, not only at the top, but across all levels of the political spectrum. We have moved Black activists into political offices as district directors, policy advisors, community representatives, boards and commission appointees, and yes, even elected officials. We’ve successfully built coalitions behind Black-led organizations to deal with redistricting, budgeting, voter turnout, incarceration, and law enforcement reform, just to name a few. Facing opposition from organized labor and the Democratic party, it was a coalition of Black power in San Diego that led the broader community to rise up and defeat an incumbent city council president who had lost touch with her Black community.
If we are to truly build Black power in America, we can no longer rely on turning out Black votes at elections and filling empty leadership roles. We must work year-round to build up the trust, confidence, awareness and positioning of Black communities across this country. We must educate people on the many ways we’ve been denied access to our “dream”. We must create awareness of the systems and institutions that uphold white supremacy. And we must direct Black communities to engage with our own vehicles to challenge those institutions and systems. When there is nothing to point to in our communities, we must create it. We must inspire and motivate our communities to participate in myriad ways that make change real and make change now!
To be successful in building Black Power, it must also be sustainable. We must be included and involved in the research and analysis. In today’s world data is king and generally speaking, Black folks aren’t even on the chessboard. I’m always amazed at how difficult it is to analyze and measure even the most basic economic, health, and social impacts of anything on the Black community. Most of the time, there isn’t enough data or big enough sample size to be “statistically significant” (and isn’t it ironic many of our people feel that everyday…not significant?). We cannot design solutions, nor create programs or garner resources if we are not able to see and show where help is needed.
Lastly, Black communities and leaders must have a seat at the decision-making table. It is not enough to have allies and friends working in our stead. We can no longer rely on others to have our best interests in heart and mind. Even if, or when, they do, we still are not prioritized in the decision-making. If allies do have our best interests in mind, they should be advocates for us to sit at the table.
Saving the world and creating better outcomes for Black folks work hand-in-hand. While activists and movements have grown in sophistication and practice, we have not seen the elevation of Black folks’ issues, nor the solutions to alleviate them. Building Black power is not an attempt to take over, nor take away, anything from anyone. It is one way in which we can finally gain access and the ability to address centuries of denial, discrimination, and disempowerment. It is an answer to the question, “what do Black folks want?” It’s a way to even the scales, which have been tipped against us from the very beginning of our presence here and, hopefully, bend the “arc of the moral universe” a bit more in the direction of justice.