Black America is at a crossroads in history and needs its political leaders to step up with a plan for the future. There is a glaring urgency for a “unity summit” to discuss the fate of Black Americans and devise an effective agenda for the 2024 election and beyond.
The Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action illustrates a lack of preparation by the Black political class. While many individuals expressed outrage about the decision in the media, the collective leadership response was inadequate for the moment and raises doubts about their legitimacy. There was widespread consternation among many Black Americans after the reversal of decades-old college admissions practices.
In one way or another, the message seemed to be, “You don’t belong here.”
The moment required a joint display of leaders issuing a statement of condemnation to let students know they matter. President Biden expressed support for them, but he does not speak for the Black community, no matter the void of leadership.
In the wake of the decision, Black political leaders have a springboard to a broader discussion on the inertia within their community, and the judicial denial of the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow behind a “colorblind” reading of the Constitution. A unity summit could devise a constructive agenda for the future — how Black America can survive the 21st century — before we embark on the ritual mobilization of voters for the 2024 election.
Putting Out the Call
On July 26, the National NAACP Convention will be held in Boston. As a nonprofit entity, the NAACP is ill-positioned to craft a political agenda — but is it well-positioned to put out a call for a unity summit? For that matter, any number of leaders — even the missing-in-action Vice President Kamala Harris, who will speak at the NAACP event — could call for a unity summit to see who responds. It partly depends on having the resources to host politicians and heads of organizations, among others.
Maryland may be best suited to host the summit as the “new capital of Black America.” The Free State of more than 6 million is 30% Black, with power centered in Baltimore and affluent suburbs. Black voters propelled the campaigns of Gov. Wes Moore and Attorney General Anthony Brown to a historic victory in the 2022 election.
The state is close to the power centers of Washington and New York City. And it is poised to make history again if voters elect Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks to the U.S. Senate in 2024.
A proposed unity summit would not be the first time for such an event. In 1972, the National Black Political Convention took place in Gary, Indiana, under Mayor Richard Hatcher. The unwieldy and contentious event lacked the talent that leaders have today — but it managed to issue a poignant manifesto, “The Gary Declaration: Black Politics at the Crossroads.”
“We come to Gary in a time of unrelieved crisis for our people,” the Declaration stated. “From every rural community in Alabama to the high-rise compounds of Chicago, we bring to this Convention the agonies of the masses of our people.”
The Notion of a ‘Black Community’
A unity summit should craft a pragmatic agenda for America’s 45 million Black citizens — more than 90% of whom are related to the original pool of 400,000 Africans enslaved in North America.
Some may question the ancestral linkage, but contrary to popular belief, the historic bond is a fact. Immigration to America from predominantly Black countries has been negligible, so much so that Black Americans as a population have experienced only small changes in the demographic makeup. By comparison, U.S. immigration policy has been favorable to Western Europe for centuries.
And while there has long been immigration from Latin America and Asia, it was severely curtailed under the racially discriminatory immigrant law of 1924. Those restrictions ended with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in the spirit of the civil rights movement. The act triggered waves of migrant families — many of them educated and affluent — from Asia and Latin America, among other places.
Therefore, even modest demographic changes within the Black American population can spark reports from social researchers. An example is the 2015 Pew Research Center study, “A Rising Share of the U.S. Black Population is Foreign Born.” It reported that 9% of the population was made up of immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa — up from a mere 3% in 1980.
Of course, many people avoid an undue association with their racial heritage and prefer to live as fully assimilated individuals with intersected interests. The circumstances of their personal lives, professions, finances, locations, and friends take them in a different and fulfilling direction.
And many Black politicians represent diverse — even predominantly white — voting districts. While they speak for a broader constituency, their insights still would be valued in forging an agenda for Black America.
To be clear, the majority of the Black community identifies with its racial heritage and feels the pain when its members are mistreated. Such is the conclusion of the 2022 Pew report, “Race Is Central to Identity for Black Americans and Affects How They Connect With Each Other.”
Topics for a Unity Summit
A summit should grapple with an economic vision beyond the talking points of political parties and organization donors. How can Black people reverse the erosion of recent decades and thrive in America’s economic system?
Their rate of unemployment has stood at twice the level of white unemployment, and its middle class has been stagnant for generations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “Black workers comprise 90 percent of the unemployment spike” in the July report. And in cities such as New York, where white unemployment stands at 1%, Black unemployment is 12% and youth unemployment is nearly twice as high.
Black workers are overrepresented in industries threatened by automation. The middle-class anchor has been public employment — but opponents of affirmative action may soon target decades-old policies on hiring and contracting in the public and corporate sectors.
A unity summit must acknowledge the urgency and explore workforce development as a priority, among other methods.
The summit should be bold in placing demands on the bipartisan infrastructure law. As President Biden travels the country touting the $1.2 trillion program, there is little reported movement on its requirement for voluntary state equity plans. The foot-dragging will impact the training and hiring of Black skilled workers and contractors in a construction industry where they have been historically excluded.
The summit should consider an organized approach to expanding proposals for reparations. It should explore ways to build institutional wealth, rather than individual payouts for the unjust enrichment from slavery and Jim Crow. It should encourage reliable structures for filing claims for reparations and target the distribution of potential awards in the areas of pensions, affordable housing, debt relief, and health insurance.
A summit should discuss public safety measures that foster youth recovery, rather than the current racial-profiling methods of “stop-and-frisk” detentions and incarceration. Young Black men have sunk into a state of despair — their needs abandoned in the Democratic Party agenda — except for those who can intersect with other causes.
No doubt there are other topics of concern that attendees would bring to the table. For example, the summit could consider ways for investors to participate in President Biden’s initiative to develop trade and electricity projects in Africa. And it must craft an independent policy response to the immigration crisis.
The Democratic Party’s approach to immigration sacrifices resources for urban communities. The busloads of immigrants sent from border states to New York and other sanctuary cities is the most egregious example, but hardly exceptional.
A call for a unity summit would do well to honor the ambitions of the Gary Declaration, which stated: “We must build for our people. We must build for our world. We stand on the edge of history. We cannot turn back.”
Roger House is associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy” and “South End Shout: Boston’s Forgotten Music Scene in the Jazz Age.” A version of the commentary appeared in The Messenger.