We don’t like to talk openly about slavery because it makes everyone uncomfortable. But so much of what is going on in my community has its roots there, and if you don’t know the roots, you can’t know the plant.
Most of slavery was about menial labor of planting, harvesting, tending animals or making things for themselves and their owners. It created a class of labor that white men no longer would work because even the poorest white male wanted to make sure he did not appear to be on the same level as the slave.
Throughout much of America, African-American men were the ditch diggers, grave diggers and garbage men. It was only after slavery ended that opportunities like teaching school or delivering mail in the black side of town appeared, and these jobs (and, of course, the black pastor) were the best occupations we had.
For at least 80 years after slavery, African Americans were not allowed to compete economically with white business. Our greatest attempt at building our own economic base was the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., which was an extraordinary black business district in the early part of the 1900s. It’s also known in history as the only town bombed from the air with planes, as whites rioted and burned the entire district to the ground two times.
There were many smaller situations all over America, and the few black businesses that did exist understood that they had to look worse than the white man’s business if he wanted to stay in business or it was business they didn’t want.
All of this is a conversation about having the instinct to do the things you need to do for your own survival and why that instinct seems to be natural to every group in America, accept African Americans.
We were denied the opportunity to consider our own interest separate from our white owners for 300 years. Like Richard Pryor and others have joked, “When blacks are hungry, we don’t say, ‘I am hungry.’ We say, ‘Boss, we hungry.’”
Those relationships have changed, but the economic and social systems they created were around much longer, and the banking and financial remnants are still very much in place. Without a strong business base, black communities are just places where money passes through us to communities around us. That is why a group of us fought redlining in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where banks used to draw a red line around communities they would not loan in.
Rather than loan in those areas, they were destroyed, by running freeways through them or slowly starved to death economically and, finally, they became impoverished. And then the Weed and Seed program cleaned us out.
I still believe today that integration was not about integrating people; it was about integrating our money back into their system.
We have developed a life so closely linked to white America that any attempt to pull back to do our own thing is seen as a rejection of white people. No other racial group has this problem and faces the resistance we do for self-determination.
The instinct to do for self will not be encouraged in my community until we make demands on the political and social-service system. Those who really benefit from that system now want to label us “freeloaders” and then tell us we need to do for ourselves like everyone else. Yet, when we do, we become a reverse racist for not including whites.
White and black America are joined at the hip and have a relationship that is deep, and how we manage or mismanage it will determine the fate of the United States.
When other nations want to know the health of the United States, they look to our black community to get their answer because we are the only legitimate barometer. We need to talk about what makes us uncomfortable to figure out what will make us better as Americans.
CHARLIE JAMES has been an African-American-community activist for more than 35 years.