Politics Mondays: Benton Harbor And The Magic Number

For several years now we have been using the Department Of Labor unemployment statistics in support of our thesis that the Black teenage unemployment number can serve as a useful indicator of riots, civil disturbances and increased racial tensions in America's inner cities. For us, the magic number is 40%. When the Black teenage unemployment number level hovers around 40%, you can expect problems. On Friday, according to the Department of Labor, the seasonally adjusted rate for Black unemployment (teenagers 16 to 19) is 39.3% while the unadjusted rate is near 44 %. Interestingly, Benton Harbor's overall unemployment rate is 40%.

When the disturbances in Benton Harbor erupted I thought that it was the sign of something. Like I viewed the Cincinnati "riots" in 2001 as an indicator that the Clinton economic boom was only a sonic one, where Blacks were concerned, I think we may all look back at the Benton Harbor "riots" as the leading indicator that the depression that Black America has been in, reached a critical moment 2003. The more unemployment rises among Black teenagers, with discrimination constant, and access to capital and credit limited; the more choices are constrained and likely it is that these youth will find themselves engaged in non-productive activity, even criminal. All along the way their dissatisfaction with government and all forms of authority grows.

In the 1960s and 1970s people used to speak of "long hot summers" in reference to racial tensions that led to riots, protests and civil disobedience in this country's most distressed urban areas. It may be time to dust off that lexicon. Because with an expected heat wave, increased unemployment, anxiety over terrorism, political ineptitude and the continued problems associated with police brutality and racial profiling; the setting is ripe for a repeat of some of what we saw just a few decades ago.

We mention political ineptitude in the same sentence as a heat wave and police brutality because it is the utter irrelevance of Black politicians in response to the chronic conditions of the Black economy that are as much responsible for the problems of today's inner cities as forced integration was for yesterday's.

It is virtually impossible today it seems, to get a member of the Black political establishment to make a "Black"-centered statement regarding economic conditions in America today. While "everybody" can recognize the Black nuances of America's economic problems, today's Black political leadership feels that it must use the language of class ("the poor" and "the rich") and partisanship ("We don't have economic growth because the other Party's budget priorities) instead of candor about race and its economic legacy. Certainly one would question why the Congressional "Black" Caucus would demonstrate in press releases an inattentive attitude toward an obvious racial disparity in the economic condition of Americans. So far, the Black experience with unemployment earns an honorable mention from the CBC, but is subservient to the broader economic problems of the country. Why, then use the identity "Black" in between "Congressional" and "Caucus"?

In light of this leadership void, the solutions, and pressure on Black politicians to formulate economic policies that respect the nuances of Black America must come from civil society.

The three primary problems that lead to "long hot summers" can be solved almost totally by Black civil society. Those three problems - 1) racial profiling and police brutality 2) the lack of Black capital formation and accumulation and 3) the dearth of markets and quality stewarding institutions in the Black community - can be addressed by the intensification of an internal dialogue of Black leaders of all religious, political and economic categories that determines that the condition of the Black community is more important than any intellectual, financial or emotional attachments to those outside of the Black community.

At BlackElectorate.com over the years we have given attention to the three problem areas and how they can be addressed. While the ideas have been received positively by the majority of those who have commented on them; there still exists a knee-jerk reaction among Black liberals, conservatives and progressives who can't seem to place the condition of "Black" people over their attachment to political ideologies that come from outside of the community and which tie them to coalition memberships that never consider the racial nuances of economics. That must change.

For the problem of police brutality and racial profiling we proposed two years ago that law enforcement should be "privatized". We argued, for example that the Black Church, the Nation Of Islam, Black Nia Force, and numerous grassroots organizations in Newark, New Jersey could do a better job in crime reduction with a quarter of the resources currently devoted to the police department. And this would be accomplished without beating down Black youth in the process. Profiling is only necessary when you do not know people and when you need efficiencies in the evaluation process - (similar to how the University Of Michigan undergraduate office used a point-system in evaluating applications). We even argue that if Black churches, mosques, activist and grassroots groups were supported and empowered in this manner, they would not even need to carry weapons in the Black community. All you would need the police force for would be high-speed chases, physical arrests, bookings and criminal investigations.

In the area of capital accumulation and formation, greater attention has to be paid to U.S. monetary policy and the liquidity it supplies to the economy. It is the monetary deflation of 1996 to 2001 that is largely responsible for the lack of capital and credit available to Black entrepreneurs. Secondly, Black politicians should be adamant that the Federal Reserve never again pledge allegiance to the Phillips curve ideology which states that the more employment there is, the greater the rate of inflation. The theory has been disproved by the economic experience of the last two decades and only serves to enshrine a structural level of unemployment in the United States. Third, Congress and the President should be lobbied to eliminate the capital gains tax in distressed urban areas with only a 6 to 12-month holding period required to qualify for the exemption. If investors see a comparative advantage for investment in Black inner cities the risk-to-reward ratio that every investor considers will be decreased. This is especially important for Black-owned investment banks and private equity firms. And lastly, Blacks must consider what the lack of support of Black-owned banks means to the condition of the local economy. When capital forms at Black-owned banks more loans to Blacks will be made. Again, the profiling that exists in police departments also occurs in the extension of capital and credit. But studies show that Black applicants are more likely to receive loans at Black-owned institutions than they are at White-owned.

The lack of markets and quality institutions of stewardship is a crisis in Black America. Parents and communities have to place more pressure on the public school system in order to enact the reforms in the area of student discipline and development that are badly needed. And although teachers' unions have an important role to play, Blacks should not be carrying water for White teachers under the guise of fixing the public school system. White teachers are not Black parents or guardians. On the other hand, Blacks need to stop being herded by White conservatives into support of school vouchers simply out of their disgust with the public school system. Private education is a legitimate alternative to the public school system but until Blacks demonstrate a commitment to building private schools of their own that teach the knowledge of self and respect Black culture, support of vouchers means tax payer dollars going into White hands outside of the community or to private institutions that have a religious agenda broader than the Black community. But Black public school advocates can't have it both ways. They can't admit chronic problems in the school system and then ask for more money and little accountability. While the school system can be reformed and should be, in the most obvious ways, Black private institutions can and should be built so that Blacks can not only have an alternative, but the best possible education. In addition Black community leaders should recognize the need for increased youth recreational activities, day care centers, after-school programs, artistic development centers, and support of mentoring programs. If the federal, state, and local government cuts the budget for these activities, self-preservation and respect demands that Blacks invest, pool their resources and build their own. In addition, Black leaders should recognize that college is not always the best path for economic opportunity and employment, especially for Black men. Today entrepreneurial development, vocational training and skills in computer and information technology are more quickly acquired and more lucrative than careers made possible by a great many college degrees that must be acquired with a debt burden. The Black community should reconsider its current view of non-traditional institutions of secondary education and higher learning. This could play a critical role in the disenfranchised and "unemployable" Black men. The more the Black community is able to positively alter the attractiveness of devalued and previously little-considered occupations, the less likely it is that Black teenagers will opt to commit "criminal" acts.

With an estimated $500 billion in consumer spending power, 35 to 40 million people and Black elected officials and professionals in every sphere there is no excuse for the lack of investment in unity that is required to change the reality of Black suffering. What is also required is that Blacks who are politically-active no longer earn their political self-concept from their affiliation to a certain political party or ideology. Partisanship has become the latest form of tribalism in Black America where a Black person can actually be hated for their membership in a certain political party and where a White politician, irrespective of their past behavior or attitude, earns instant credit because of their membership in a favored political party. Political tribalism (which grows largely out of self-hatred, fear and ignorance) is absolutely one of the greatest hindrances to candid and honest dialogue and thinking among Blacks today - even academics and intellectuals who feel a need to make their analysis and thinking fit a pre-determined institutional agenda.

Benton Harbor and a 40% rate of unemployment among Black youth should be enough of a sign to bring an artificially divided family together in 2003.

If not 40% what is the magic number that produces dialogue, the search for solutions, and unity, across artificial boundaries in Black America?

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, July 7, 2003