Crisis in Black and White: Still Pertinent Today

Barack Obama, the first American President of African descent, was re-elected this week. This week I also finished reading for the first time Charles E. Silberman’s classic study of the Negro in America, Crisis in Black and White. The book was published in 1964 while I was still a student in an all-white Chicago suburban high school and when pent-up black rage was exploding in our cities.  I come away with a feeling of what a perspective on history and sociology of the city and race relations that Silberman had even in the midst of the turbulent civil rights movement occurring at the very time he was writing. Even if he had written his book in hindsight, he could not have provided better insights. The dynamics and urban malaise of the urban black ghetto persist. I read in the newspaper almost daily about shootings of children caught in the cross-fire of other young people’s guns on Chicago streets, even children being killed while they are sitting in their living rooms watching television.

The prescription for recovery remains the same. The people of the blighted communities must reclaim and put into practice democracy’s tenet of power to the people.  When people in a community seize power, they do demonstrate they have the ability to solve their own problems when social agencies and government programs have failed to do so. Belief in the wisdom of the people forms the optimistic core of democracy.  These community action programs succeed because they rely on indigenous leaders, men and women who actually live in the communities they wish to uplift.

Paradoxically, this is basically a conservative viewpoint and the model for community action that Saul Alinsky successfully employed and taught until his death in 1972.  Barack Obama pursued this type of grassroots  work for change in Chicago after he graduated from Harvard Law School instead of seeking a high-paying job with  a corporate law firm.  Silberman dedicates an entire chapter to Alinsky’s organization of the Woodlawn neighborhood adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) fought City Hall’s Negro Removal Plan (aka urban renewal) and organized bus loads of residents to register to vote in the early sixties. In fact, Alinsky was the first  to successfully show a black community how to organize and to harness the power of their numbers to effect change. In Rochester, New York, he duplicated that effort when he helped the black community organize to demand jobs and job training from Kodak  Corporation.

From Obama’s community action work,  Americans can understand they have a President who sincerely loves the people, who passionately believes people can organize for change. In 1964 people of color did not occupy high offices in government, education, and business;  and few were seen on television. Progress has been made since the turbulent race riots of the 1960s and 1970s, which had to occur in order to move on. But I am not so insensible that I cannot perceive the racism that still runs under the surface in the white community, and unfortunately, has manifested in some hateful effigies of President Obama and an inordinate antipathy voiced in private.

More progress will be made in American society when we no longer hear our politicians and political pundits talk of the black vote, the latino vote or the white vote.  Individuals of whatever hue will vote for the person who best represents the democratic vision and who promotes the welfare of the broad spectrum of the population, and who tries to embrace all the people. Saul Alinsky said that anyone who wanted to do community action work must love the people in action, not in the abstract; and he did not hesitate to attack liberals who in theory spoke of their love of the common man but would not rub shoulders with the masses or dirty their sleeves in the nitty-gritty work in organizing the slums. Perhaps that is a good character description as well for anyone who aspires to public office, more accurately put, public service in a public office.

Obama convinces me he cares about the people more than himself, more than personal fame or fortune.  The other presidential candidate was less convincing.

In the aftermath of this  year’s election, it is fortuitous that my reading of Crisis in Black and White coincided with Barack Obama’s successful bid for a second term to serve all the people–We, the People of the United States.

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