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Discussion Highlights Issues in the Black Community

Sam P.K. Collins | 5/14/2014, 3 p.m.
On Thurs., May 1, Black politics and public policy expert, Dr. Wilmer Leon and Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel for the Brennan Center participate in "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday in America! - A Nation Divided Against Itself, a panel discussion held at the African Civil War Memorial in Northwest. Photo by Mark Mahoney

Incendiary comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling about African Americans have shaken up the sports world in recent weeks and sparked conversations about race around water coolers and in living rooms around the country.

Many people, however, including Dr. Benjamin Chavis, civil rights leader and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in New York, believe that Sterling’s words pale in comparison to high unemployment among African Americans, threats to affirmative action and a generational disconnect in communities of color.

“We said the nation [reached a] post-racial stage with the election of President Obama, but that wasn’t the end of the journey at all,” said Chavis, 66.

“We have to be unapologetic in our consciousness as black people. The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. The mainstream media’s [too] focused on Donald Sterling. In the last 12 months, black Americans have spent more than $1.2 trillion. We’re trillion dollar former slaves.”

Chavis and four other civil rights advocates, clergy and social commentators touched on the current state of affairs in the black community during a panel discussion at the African American Civil War Museum in Northwest. The event, called “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday in America! - A Nation Divided Against Itself,” provided more than 40 guests an opportunity to openly discuss the social, legal, and economic problems that plague the black community.

The Capital Press Club hosted the Thursday, May 1 discussion as part of its 70th anniversary celebration. The panel also included Wilmer Leon, producer and host of Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon on Sirius XM Channel 110, Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice in Northwest, Shanta Driver, national chair of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary in Detroit, and Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore. Julianne Malveaux, labor economist and former president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, moderated the two-hour event.

In his opening comments, Leon expressed his concern that blacks haven’t shown a level of civic engagement similar to that of other ethnic groups. He said that the depiction of civil rights leaders as larger-than-life figures created an illusion that the responsibility to advocate only falls on a few.

“Too many of us have allowed ourselves to become disengaged,” said Leon, 54. “It’s not the priority of elected officials to address our issues. Few realize that Fannie Lou Hamer was an uneducated sharecropper that was sick and tired of being sick and tired. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was started by some regular people that wanted to go to work. The Black Panthers started as a book club in Oakland, California. Look around your neighborhood, pick an issue, and find like-minded individuals.”

Austin-Hillery wasted little time drawing connections between the prison industrial complex, the breakdown of the black family and erosion of economic opportunities in communities of color.

“We know that more black and brown people are in jail than any other race of people in this country,” said Austin-Hillery, 46. “Some young people think it's a part of their existence. [That’s why] this issue of mass incarceration requires our immediate attention. There's a trickle down process that affects our homes. You cannot think that these problems [occur] in a silo.”

While Bryant agreed that many issues deserved attention, he said that unless older leaders prepare young people for a life of public service, the movement will not continue.

“In less than two years, President Obama will leave office and we haven’t groomed anyone to appear on the ballot,” said Bryant. “A whole generation is drowning and they don’t even know it. There’s an absence of prophetic leadership. We have to leave room for the next graduating class [of leaders].”

Some guests like Kristin Oswald said they enjoyed the spirited discussion but wanted the panelists and audience members to take their messages to the streets and create a mass movement.

“We often skim the surface with these discussions because of the time limit,” said Oswald, 30, a patent attorney for the federal government. “The speakers touched on a broad set of issues but how do we mobilize others who care [about these problems]? I've lived in D.C. for 15 months but I haven't seen marches. We still need to [bridge that gap] between our educated elite and the uneducated.”