The Fate of African Americans

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The Fate of African Americans

Major R. Owens (D-New York-11th District) is a member of the U.S. House of Representitives.

The Reverend James Forbes is pastor of Riverside Church, New York City.

Thandeka teaches philosophy of religion at Williams College.

I hope you are as excited about this Summit as I am. I think it is one of the most significant events to take place in Washington in the fourteen years that I've been here.

I've called for the creation of a Third Force in this country, a coalition of caring majority. This Summit is a movement of a caring majority. And a substantial part of the Black community will be part of that caring majority.

For many in the Black community, and certainly in the community that I represent in Brooklyn, we have been living in depression conditions, with 15 to 20-percent unemployment. The Republican leadership has now made a huge assault on public housing. Many people in the Black community feel that they are under a state of siege, and that has been made more intense by the retreat of the federal government, and the consequent retreat of state and local government, from its traditional role to provide some degree of caring for those who are most economically deprived. Affirmative action is being taken away, set-asides for the poor are being taken away, so of course many people in the Black community feel under attack, and care very much about public policy issues.

But the problem is, when your caring stems from being under direct assault, the caring doesn't always flow from ideology, but rather from direct need, and so you aren't always aware of the need to link up with and care about other people as well. For 232 years, American slavery existed; the obliteration process occurred for African Americans, keeping Blacks alive but trying to transform them into beasts of burden, subjected to oppression that left a lasting impact. The teenage pregnancy problem started during slavery when Black girls were forced to become pregnant as soon as they could physically, and then Black women were used as breeders. Suddenly, now, we want a color-blind society and to pretend that we are all equal, without taking into account the lasting impact of slavery. A politics of meaning must include participation of African Americans and must speak to their needs.

The agenda for this session includes many items. I will discuss one of them: the link between our private crisis of meaning as middle-class, progressive Americans and the public fate of Black America. My task is complicated by five unstated assumptions in our agenda. They are:

One: We are suffering from a crisis of meaning.

Two: Our crisis is linked to the fate of a particular group of people.

Three: African Americans have one common fate.

Four: We know what it is.

Five: Somehow the inevitable--a group's fate--isn't so inevitable after all. We can change it.

Collectively, these assumptions are extraordinarily presumptuous. Our agenda, from this perspective, is either impossible or inadvisable. From this perspective, I have nothing to say.

There is, however, another perspective from which we can view the work required in this session. We can very consciously and carefully keep our work situated within the wider religious framework of this "politics of meaning" summit. This framework is Genesis 1:26-27. In this part of the biblical account of creation, we are told that God said: "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...." So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female, He created them.

From this perspective we must remember that the politics of meaning, as Michael Lerner tells us in the introduction to his new book, is an attempt to translate the ancient biblical truth that human beings are created in the Image of God into a contemporary language that can also be grasped by a nonreligious person. …