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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Overcoming Racial Adversity: The Pathway Forward

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on August 27, 2019

In recent years, I have published articles on some extraordinary African-American families who have achieved remarkable success since the end of the Civil War, despite 154 years of living and working in a harsh environment of racial prejudice and discrimination. These articles featured: (a) Olivia and William Carmichael, (b) Sallie and Adam Watkins, (c) Mary and Juderson Leslie, (d) Jeraldine and Paul D. Lehman, Jr., and (e) Lucy and William Gainey, Sr., along with a host of other noteworthy African-American families.

I have been studying African-American families for years. In a time when blacks are portrayed in the mainstream media as modern-day minstrels, these families embody the real strengths and values of wholesome, respected, and well-educated African-American families. While pimps, drug dealers, rappers, gang members, athletes, entertainers, effeminate black men, and Uncle Toms have been pushed to the forefront as the new role models for black America, the families I profiled truly define who African-Americans really are.

I have been thinking about how little progress we have made with racial equity since the end of legally enforced racial segregation, particularly in Birmingham, Alabama (and cities like Baltimore and Chicago with predominantly black populations). Yes, we have a black mayor, a predominantly black city council, and a black congresswoman. We even had a black U.S. president for eight years. Certainly, there are more black professionals in families like the ones I profiled in my articles than there were a century ago.

Overall, however, the daily lives of black Birmingham residents have shown little progress. While many observers connect the lack of progress to continued racial prejudice and/or a rise in white supremacy, the links between these attitudes and outcomes are not clear.

I think other pertinent factors are at play, as well. These factors include: (a) the collapse of the Birmingham city school system from 70,000 students in the 1960s to 23,000 students as multiple suburban school districts opened in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, (b) the disappearance of Birmingham’s steel industry and union jobs, (c) the rise and expansion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, with jobs requiring technical skills, (d) the deterioration of social cohesion in black inner-city neighborhoods, (e) growing urban blight, (f) rising violence and crime, (g) single motherhood, and (h) the existence of poverty programs that provide money, food, and housing, but not real economic opportunity.

As an ethnic group, African-Americans are falling behind in many aspects of American society because we no longer place a huge value on a solid educational foundation. Additionally, we are no longer driven by the need to excel in goal-setting and high levels of achievement (beyond sports and entertainment). Somehow, we have fallen into a permanent state of low expectations and low outcomes.

The key to upward mobility for every immigrant group in America has been education, hard work, a competitive and fighting spirit, an expectation to excel, and strong family support. That strategy is the only way for African-Americans to achieve the American Dream and attain their proper place in our society.

The family members I featured in my articles supported each other, without hesitation or reservation. They also exercised a “no excuse” and “no bullshit” approach to life and success (i.e. there is no one to blame for failure other than yourself).

Some people have suggested that the children of Sallie and Adam Watkins, or Lucy and William Gainey, or Mary and Juderson Leslie, or Jeraldine and Paul Lehman, Jr. were simply gifted and talented. There is no doubt that is true. However, the reason the children in these families were successful is because they were all educated, they all worked hard, they all set high goals for themselves, and they all fought hard every day to attain their collective goals in life.

A new version of prejudice and paternalism from the federal government, mainstream media, and some in the academic community provides a narrative of racial discrimination that excuses low expectations and low outcomes. This narrative portrays African-Americans as hopeless victims of perennial racial prejudice and discrimination. The media’s proffered pathway out of this deteriorating socio-economic condition is for a thousand or so blacks to become glorified minstrels who entertain Americans by singing, rapping, dancing, telling jokes, or by running, throwing, or dribbling a ball. As for the masses of African-Americans, we will continue to be isolated in urban ghettos, warehoused in prison systems across America, and/or subjected to an official policy of “benign neglect,” unless we change our ways as an ethic group.

Sadly, African-Americans are the only race on the globe whose role models and leaders come from the ranks of rappers, entertainers, athletes, politicians, mega-church preachers, and Uncle Toms. While there is nobility in all work and these African-Americans are recognized as celebrities when walking through shopping malls, they do not wield any real power in America.

While there is still pervasive and hardcore racial discrimination in America, as well as a rise in white nationalism, the short-term answer for the African-American community is to fight this racism with the tools of education, hard work, entrepreneurship, and perseverance.

The long-term solution for African-Americans is to work with all Americans of interracial goodwill to lower the barriers to achievement by raising the educational level and socio-economic conditions in which we live, study, and work. This can and must be done. However, African-Americans must lead the way by striving toward educational excellence first.

PHOTO: In the end, we all need each other. We must push ourselves to achieve and join with others to lower barriers and enhance opportunities.

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