I said I'd wait a year, and as of this week, I have.
Last March, there was an Event, with prominent participants, the theme of which was to call on President Barack Obama to put forth a black agenda. Holding his "feet to the fire" was a metaphor that came up here and there. I wrote the following:
"In March of 2011, late March to be precise, I am going to evaluate whether We Count! The Black Agenda Is the American Agenda has had any effect on the lives of black people.
"I'm going to be as fair as possible. Obviously I have a suspicion how this is going to come out, but I'm going to go at it from a scientific frame of mind. I'm going to do my evaluation putting myself in the mind of someone who wants to show that there was an effect. That will include that I will allow evidence that something is going to happen even if it hasn't yet — as long as it can be shown pretty clearly that the We Count! 'discussion' people had in Chicago a year ago was a part of the reason why."
Well, here we are, and it's safe to say that this event had no effect upon the welfare of black Americans, or on the chances that the president will create legislation principally for blacks. Nor do I see any sign that the event will have such an effect in the future. It is a historical footnote. To the extent that things are better for blacks a year since last March, it would be because of stimulus spending, plans for Race to the Top funds aimed at schools, and other things in place before his feet had been brought anywhere near said fire a year ago.
I point this out not to disrespect its convener in any way. I sincerely assume that Tavis Smiley is as committed to helping black America as I am; this is not a hit piece on him or anyone else. My purpose is to point out that the time has come when discussion events on the state of black America like this, which occur all year every year across America, no longer serve the purpose we assume they do — i.e., helping. I want to suggest a different direction.
It's easy to miss that these "forums" are no longer a new direction. There was a time when such events galvanized black people around a common purpose: eliminating segregation, gaining voting rights, battling redlining. After these gains, an idea settled in that we must not give up the fight. That was true, but too often we forget that in a long-term fight, tactics have to change with the times.
That is not happening at the typical event where some people decry racism (to applause), while others talk about responsibility and "stepping up" (to applause) and everybody goes home. Nowadays, after these events, often deemed "terrific" and "deep" by all concerned, how many poor black kids learn more, and how many fewer get shot? How many black adults know more about how to find and keep a job? How many fewer black men spend the prime of their lives in prison?
Participating in, or attending, one of these events feels more like being involved than staying home. But really, these forums are now rituals. They are like the smile that the Cheshire Cat left behind, attitude in the place of action. We can do better.
My suggestion: Making black America better will entail battling the senseless war on drugs. Police forces assigned to trawl black neighborhoods create thousands of young black people wary of whites — and thus less likely to ever succeed in a world full of them. When drugs are illegal, you can make money from the markup that selling them entails, and thus, so very many young blacks step outside of legal work to do so — especially when their schools are bad — and end up in prison or a coffin.
Their children grow up in communities where two-parent families are rare, are subject to the disruptive home lives that make it hard to be a good student, and often end up recapitulating the lives of their parents. Selling drugs means turf wars wielded with guns, which kill people, including little girls and grandmothers caught in crossfire.
Take away the war on drugs and all of this dissolves. With one generation of black inner-city boys who have never known cops as the enemy; who think of "slingin' on them corners" as something old-school that no one could do now; and who stay in their neighborhoods to help raise their kids, black America would turn a corner.
Paradise? No. Decisively better than now? Certainly. Think about it: If there were no war on drugs, The Wire's Felicia "Snoop" Pearson wouldn't be in jail right now, despite how hard her childhood was.
The economy offers no work to young black people? Out of the many answers to that, here's the most important: Anything whatsoever that black boys do besides sell drugs on street corners — anything at all — would be an improvement, and we all know it. Hard drugs available at stores? Yes, in standardized (and certified clean) doses — along with funding, now used to terrorize inner-city blacks, freed up for rehab. That's a sane trade-off, especially given that there has been no addiction epidemic in countries that have relaxed their drug laws.
So: I would like to see black America rise up, indeed — against the real problem: the war on drugs. No more "Black America in the Age of Obama" powwows; what are they for in 2011, really? Let's do something real.
Write your congressman. Follow Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. If you want to attend old-style forums, too, bring up the war on drugs in the question-and-answer session. Actively observe how the war on drugs snakes through almost everything that looks like an unrelated cluster of black-neighborhood problems.
If it helps, call the war on drugs "the New Jim Crow," as Michelle Alexander does in her book that just got an NAACP Image Award. Just fight it. Fight something that can change. I will be discussing this tomorrow on Stossel. I have shared it here as well. We've talked and signified and applauded enough.
I am even going to put this in a way that I almost hesitate to, but must: You may pretend that Barack Obama could institute a black agenda or govern from the left. You may wait for an America where there is no racist bias of any kind. You may pretend that we can change what goes on in black families by saying sonorous things about responsibility. But if you do, you are not fighting at all.
I think we should fight.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.