The Common Good

Whose America is It?

[This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "Whose America is It?," which appeared in the August-September 1990 issue of Sojourners and remains relevant today.—The Editors]

See to it that no one falls away from God; that no bitter root springs up through which many may become defiled; that there be among you no fornicator or godless person like Esau, who sold his birthright for a meal. You know that afterward he wanted to inherit his father's blessings, but was rejected because he had no opportunity to alter his choice, even though he sought the blessing with tears. Hebrews 12:15-17

TODAY'S YOUNG GENERATION OF AFRICAN AMERICANS IS IN the midst of a spiritual crisis. The promise of integration, the freedom for blacks to assimilate into white society, was gained at the expense of our cultural birthright; that sense of community and morality that sustained our elders through thick and thin. Consequently, black America, at one time the moral conscience of the nation, now finds itself to be a reflection of this society's most base values.

The concept of integration is, ultimately, a spiritual issue for black America. Not a political issue. Not a social issue. Not an economic issue. This is not to say that there aren't political, social, and economic ramifications for blacks in our daily existence in white America. But blacks' involvement in these three areas can only be edifying to ourselves, and to this nation, when our spiritual and moral vision is clear.

And it used to be. Unlike the generation of blacks who reached maturity before, and during, the early '70s, my generation has no memory of credible black leaders, such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. Nor do we have a relationship with those indigenous institutions, such as the black church, that developed as a consequence of racism and segregation. The debilitating effects of racism and segregation notwithstanding, blacks had been able to instill a sense of self and community. But the practice of integration created the illusion of equality with the wider culture, effectively wresting control of the black freedom movement by holding it hostage to federal good will and weakening or destroying those institutions that influenced blacks' worldview.

The effect this loss of control has had on my generation is devastating. Growing up in "integrated" America has established a pattern of cognitive dissonance among young blacks. Inoculated with secular values emphasizing the individual instead of the community, and progressive politics over theology, young blacks rarely recognize each other as brothers and sisters, or as comrades in the struggle. We're now competitors, relating to each other out of fear and mistrust.

The decay of culturally specific institutions in the black community has meant the supplantation of concrete programmatic policies designed to alleviate our worsening condition in America. Whereas black America once had a unique platform from which it could (and did) address issues, we are now reduced to angry rhetoric. Without ownership of black institutions, our best interests will never be served, our leaders will not be held accountable, and the only vested interest we will have is in our problems. And they are legion. Black-on-black violence, drug abuse, high school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, single-parent households, high rates of incarceration, crime, homelessness, and inadequate health care, just to name a few.

WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING? And how are we going to get there? We can no longer answer these questions. Indeed, we have stopped asking them. But just as the future of blacks seemed to be in peril when integration was introduced decades ago, our future as a viable racial and ethnic group in this country will be greatly diminished unless a new model for racial and cultural development is established.

The total assimilation-immersion-integration of blacks into an atomized, secular society is not in our best interests precisely because it prohibits such development. Blacks' collective energies need to shift toward recreating these cultural, political, social, and economic infrastructures within the black community, all of which should be secured on a coherent theological foundation. Without such infrastructures, we have no equal basis for contact, negotiation, or compromise with members of other groups.

The establishment of cultural, political, and social institutions led by blacks for the express purpose of racial and cultural development demands that blacks' political, social, and economic relationships with whites and other groups be redefined. The increasingly plural nature of the United States makes it imperative, I believe, that blacks choose the context in which, and the extent to which, contact occurs with groups whose values are different from our own.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit upon all humankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old people shall dream dreams, your young people shall see visions. Joel 3:1

WHILE THE NUMBER OF BLACK ELECTED OFFICIALS has increased during the last few decades, blacks' influence on the implementation of public policy remains negligible. Once in office, blacks are quickly frustrated because voting strength devoid of an indigenous economic base is self-defeating. Combined with the need for a viable economic base is the need for independent black political bases outside of the electoral process.

The need for the development of quality black leadership outside of the electoral process is essential and cannot be overstated. It seems that a resurgence of leadership needs to come under the following four categories: spiritual and moral (pastors and religious advocates); intellectual (teachers, students, journalists, writers, and artists); social (athletes and entertainers); and economic (large- and small-business executives and entrepreneurs). There is no other way that blacks can maintain, nurture, and control our vested interests of cultural literacy, economic parity, and political power.

The United States is a nation in transition. The social costs of this transition will reverberate well into the 21st century, leaving no aspect of society untouched. The most important question to emerge will be this: Whose America is it? It will soon no longer be the sole domain of whites, who are fast becoming a minority. Nor will the United States become the domain of any other particular minority group.

We are crossing the color line because of immigration, high birthrates, and demographic trends. We have already exploded the myth of this country being a melting pot, illuminating already-existing fault lines that separate blacks and non-English speaking minorities on one side, and whites on the other.

Political change in this country means a top-to-bottom change. Priorities must shift, attitudes must change, agendas must be replaced, and competition will increase. Political jockeying between whites and minorities, each hoping to take advantage of this emerging social landscape, has already begun. Integration has not prepared blacks for this changing reality; it has placed us in double jeopardy.

A spiritual renaissance is what is needed among young African-American people. Any attempt at building racial and cultural institutions in our communities without a spiritual renaissance—a vibrant embrace of faith—will produce symbols but not substance. We will bear false witness to ourselves and to the nation.

Anthony A. Parker was assistant editor of Sojourners when this article appeared. This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "Whose America is It?," which appeared in the August-September 1990 issue of Sojourners.

Image: Spent matches, Lisa S. / Shutterstock.com

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