Last year Camille Busette, a senior fellow at the Brookings institute wrote that “to be male, poor, and either African-American is to confront, on a daily basis, a deeply held racism that exists in every social institution.” This suggests that when Black males gathered in numbers of two or more, whether it was on the corner, in the post office, on the job or in the schoolyard there was a racial bias that sent red flags alerting every institution that something was wrong. Busette was exploring many of the challenges Black men and boys face in a society where micro aggressions and limited opportunities are constant. So, she, along with folk at the Center on Children and Families embarked on what they called creating a “New Deal for Black men.”
This New Deal recipe would consist of a major helping of policymaking directed at education, labor markets, fatherhood policy, criminal justice reform and overall poverty. Here are some very important facts they understood about the urgent need and difficulty of their work:
First, they noted that young Black men often come out of underfunded schools that lack the resources to provide a great education, which had a major impact on their overall upward mobility in life, but also that Black boys who grew up amid financial hardship were most at risk of facing the same hardship in adulthood.
Secondly, they found that Black men were twice as likely to be unemployed — actively looking for a job but unable to find one — as their white counterparts over the age of 20. And lastly, they noted what most everyone in my hometown of Baltimore already knew: that Black men’s life expectancy was much shorter than other men in society. Again, in Baltimore many of these concerns are worse as a result of long-standing policies that allowed for systemic disenfranchisement of Black and brown communities.
Immediately following the civil rights movement many of our civil rights leaders argued that if we only had more people of color in positions of power, we could begin to dramatically impact the conditions of Black people. In Baltimore we would see our first citywide elected Black person in 1968: Judge Joseph Howard, who was elected by a heavy majority turnout of Black voters. Aided by the influence and the behind-the-scenes work of local clergy his success would signal a new day in local electoral politics. The following year those men, known as the Goon Squad, would gather again, to rally around Parren J. Mitchell, allowing him to become the first African American from the state of Maryland elected to the U.S. Congress.
Still, as more and more Black people moved into public office and ultimately rose to places of political power, many of the problems for Black people, and especially Black men, persisted. And in some cases, they even worsened. When crack consumed the streets of most urban markets in America, it coincided with many of those same communities being led by African American males. By the mid-80s there was Harold Washington in Chicago, Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, Richard Arrington Jr. in Birmingham, Harvey Gantt in Charlotte, and David Dinkins in New York. Ten years prior, major American cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit all had Black male mayors. On one hand there was political progress for a very few, but the majority gains were being pushed further back.
Also, during this time the structure and dynamic of the African American household was on a course of destruction for which it would never fully recover. While rap music was impacting the culture, there was still a very positive hope in the air for the future of Black life. By the end of the decade, young Black men were enrolling into higher education in numbers never before seen in this country and so were young Black girls. And then, just like that, in an instant, the culture’s music made a dramatic shift. The music began to drive popular culture and in every corner of our community the theme was money, sex, drugs, violence and lowered expectations.
Soon, the numbers of Black men being incarcerated was at an all-time high, and there seemed to be no decline in sight. Yet, all across the nation, Black people were continually being elected to serve in higher offices of local and national government. The writer James Baldwin said America “changes all the time without ever really changing at all.” In Baltimore, after having had two Black mayors — Clarence “Du” Burns and Kurt Schmoke — a white male was elected who would lead a campaign to lock up generations of our sons. He would move on to the governor’s office, but the impact of his policies would linger.
Today as we approach the general elections of November, there are still those who are depending on people in elected to office to change the conditions of Black men. I am one of those persons. And I must admit that I’ve never been more hopeful than I am today. In Wes Moore there is a particular hope hanging on every campaign promise unlike any other time. As a resident of the city of Baltimore, there is an excellent chance that I could awake on Wednesday, Nov. 9, to an almost unheard of reality: that damn near all of my city and state’s leadership would be men of color. My governor, attorney general, state treasurer, city states attorney, city comptroller, mayor, City Council president, police commissioner and state superintendent of schools could all be the revelation of hopes our ancestors dreamed about. There collective positions should mean major changes in the realities for me and my neighbors along the North Avenue and Greenmount corridor, but will it?
The reason I ask with some serious concern is that what some of the work around “unconscious racial bias” has shown is that we don’t like to see large groups of Black men gathered. And I’m convinced that if there is to be any real significant change as a result of this beautiful tapestry of Black leadership, then it will require that they gather. It will require they dedicate some time to meet somewhere without the influence of white and other non-Black voices to discuss a possible solution to one or two major issues impacting people of color. They must meet to ascertain the level of power each will wield and to affirm the trust they have in one another to have success. If nothing else, they must seek to understand how Baltimore could record over 330 deaths of majority Black men in 1972 and 2022. They must ask what can they do to end the half century acceptance of such loss. But a gathering of Black men in such powerful positions could be difficult to orchestrate.
If anyone is aware and impacted by unconscious bias, it’s Black men in corporate and public life. Unfortunately, we are skeptical of the image our gatherings may play in the eyes of onlooking non-Black communities. We have a serious fear and concern of the reprimand that may come as a result of being seen in the group gathering. And so, I write to raise the very necessary questions: Who has the power to call these leaders together? Who can give them the permission and protection they will need to convene such a gathering? Who has the conviction and proven best interest for the Black community? Well, I believe it’s the Black church. It’s the Black faith community.
In the book of Ezekiel, the story of the valley of dry bones paints a very bleak situation that is ultimately transformed by the coming together of bones. The impossible is made possible as a result of Ezekiel following instructions. First, he was made to sit among the bones, and then he was to speak life over them.
For the sake of future’s yet unborn and those struggling just to get from one day to the next, I am calling on these Black leaders to find time to sit down in the valley of the dry bones and ask themselves a very real question: Can these bones live?
Kevin A. Slayton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church.