Our Choice: The New Black or The New Black Power

by Rashad J. Buni

In honor of Malcolm X - who would have been 90 this past week - I celebrate his legacy, and attempt to uphold it.

What do “The New Black” and #BlackLivesMatter have in common? On the surface, they are just two phrases that describe different aspects of being Black in America. Upon a closer examination, however, you will see that they are simply products of a nation still under white supremacy.

#BlackLivesMatter may be a new trending phrase, but it carries the energy of a continuously reshaping movement in American history. If you have engaged in the conversation that has shifted from the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida to Walter Scott in South Carolina, you will find it hard to deny that the disregard for Black Life is a phenomenon that stretches across the nation. It is important to note, however, that the pain and frustration seen in Ferguson and Baltimore not only stretches across space — but time as well.

“In a way, we can divide the tactics used to quell Black Plight into essentially two policies — two sides of the very same coin. It is evident that one of them is noticeably absent in today’s conversation, and it is essential that we breathe life into it again.”

In the year 2015, we continue to voice that simple, yet subverted philosophy, that has essentially failed to be recognized ever since the crowded, inhumane conditions of ships brought over African slaves into plantations hundreds of years ago. The bodies of these slaves and their descendants have always mattered — to developing the capital of the United States. This extends from the construction of The White House to a significant percentage of Blacks powering its working class. The struggle to have our humanity and citizenship accepted, free from a persistent double standard with its very deep roots in the white supremacy of this country’s foundation, has always been the main challenge. In a way, we can divide the tactics used to quell Black Plight into essentially two policies — two sides of the very same coin. It is evident that one of them is noticeably absent in today’s conversation, and it is essential that we breathe life into it again.

The first policy centers around Integration. Ever since the last Civil Rights Movement, the mainstream of Black activism has framed all of its efforts around the forerunners of this strategy: fighting for equal opportunity of all races in education, housing, and every other facet of living. For example, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, states that “during the past twenty years, virtually every progressive, national civil rights organization in the country has mobilized and rallied in defense of affirmative action.” Efforts such as these have opened up new avenues of success for a subset of black people — enough for Pharrell to refer to these individuals as “The New Black.” He comments: “He is a black American president. Regardless of what you think about him, this is his second term. That’s the new black.”

Comments of that nature have been made by plenty of Black celebrities such as Don Lemon, Raven-Symoné, and Bill Cosby. Rather than concern themselves with systemic inequities, he deflects that conversation by putting a spotlight on African Americans who are exceptional. Sentiments like these are not random. They are merely symptomatic of people embracing the ideals that integration stood for — that the color of your skin should have nothing to do with your status or your upward mobility. But this is hiding from reality. 

UCLA data tracking the shift in segregation in schools since 1964

UCLA data tracking the shift in segregation in schools since 1964

Once you extend "the New Black" argument to the masses of African Americans, it begins to crumble immediately. Segregation in school districts are at comparable levels to that of the pre Brown v. Board of Education era. The income gap between black and white people continues to widenThe police force continues killing unarmed Black men and women at a despicably disproportionate rate. It is for these reasons and more that the structure of the United States does not meld well with The New Black mentality at all. If that were the case, the uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson would have not come into existence.

America still has much progress to make as a nation before the ideals of integrative strategists like MLK are truly upheld. While efforts can always be made to further cement King’s vision, we must also fight to build structures of our own — those that inherently value Blackness and promote unity for the millions of Black lives that aren't fortunate enough to have climbed this country’s skewed ladder. Such an ideology isn't exactly breaking new ground — it is the second policy that has been swept farther and farther under the rug since the last civil rights movement — Black Power.

The Black Power movement is often absurdly oversimplified, whitewashed as pure physical resistance, militancy, and almost always associated with "acts of terror." In reality, those facets are interwoven into a much larger tapestry. Black Power at its root has always been about building cooperation within the Black Community - economically, culturally, and spiritually. Today's mainstream activism for Black lives is more reflective of MLK's legacy, largely associated with non-violent protests and sit-ins. In contrast, Black Power tactics are not nearly as emphasized. Not only do they fail to be acknowledged sufficiently, their influence in previous movements are consistently overlooked. They call for the unity of the Black Community without necessary assistance from outside structures, centering around movements like "Black Wall Street", Pan-Africanism, and Afrocentric education. It is simply a way of empowering a community from the bottom up rather than focusing on receiving equal treatment from a top that has set the skewed standard from the beginning.

“Black Power at its root has always been about building cooperation within the Black Community — economically, culturally, and spiritually.”
The Detroit Race Riots - 1967

The Detroit Race Riots - 1967

Baltimore Uprising - 2015

Baltimore Uprising - 2015

At a glance, it may not be entirely clear how focusing our energy on integrative efforts over separatism in recent years has panned out for the Black Community. However, the consequences of our strategies can be seen when looking at the pendulum-like routine of race relations in this country. In so many cities with a white and Black population, acts of discrimination against Blacks have led to riots, propelling the exodus of Whites in the area. As the pendulum swings back, the now disenfranchised community is now met with threats spanning targeted police action and an eventual gentrification. The fact is that these actions are able to be combated by the building of cooperation within the Black Community. Efforts designed to unite us can not only lessen the extent to which our neighborhoods are gentrified (because of our own economic empowerment), but our reliance on a system biased against us. When it comes to the police, that can be the difference between life and death.

By reviving the Black Power movement, we can shift our efforts from changing the trajectory of the pendulum to transforming the workings of the clock that drives it. Sometimes the revolutionary option is the best option. A quick perusal through history will show you that attitudes like "The New Black" or disproportionate police brutality has always been present in America. Because of the last movement's push for an integrated society, we see more Black Americans embracing its idealism than ever before - prioritizing their individuality and showing a lack of regard for systematic inequities. We should thus not be surprised that many of our celebrities, exceptions to our system by the very definition, exhibit such colorblind qualities.  

“Efforts designed to unite us can not only lessen the extent to which our neighborhoods are gentrified (because of our own economic empowerment), but our reliance on a system biased against us. When it comes to the police, that can be the difference between life and death.”

People like Pharrell or Raven-Symoné don’t think about race critically, essentially because their privilege places them out of touch. When a system is working in your favor, the motivation to criticize it is scarce. By disregarding how Black Power has made its impact on our history, and by not upholding the legacy of the other side of the coin in the efforts to reduce Black Struggle, such counter-productive mentalities will continue to spread. It speaks to how white supremacy in this country is more than simply about whites having positions of power. If we propagate a bias rooted in a culture historically either against us or distanced from our perspective, it hardly matters if it’s someone Black doing it.

I see integrational and separatist efforts as not diametrically opposed philosophies, but those that are complementary, just like offense and defense in a fighting match. Focusing on only one is not an option. When The Black Power movement rises from the grave and Black people stand united, we will be able to tackle issues dealing with race more effectively.

So are we satisfied with establishing The New Black? Or are we going to fight for the New Black Power?