Accountability has become a buzz word, especially for those in leadership positions. Today’s column examines some implications of the disconnect between the rhetoric of accountability and actual accountability among African Americans. (The definition of accountable includes “obliged to account for one’s acts”; accountability is accepting responsibility for one’s actions or inaction.) For purposes of this discussion, accountability applies at virtually all levels, e.g., from formal leadership positions to individuals’ obligation to be accountable for their own behavior.
Accountability is usually mentioned in relation to elected or appointed public officials. However, failure to recognize and acknowledge the need for greater accountability overall, tends to absolve individuals, groups, and organizations of their responsibility, thereby often contributing to the onerous conditions many of these same people and groups profess they are seeking to change.
For Blacks, the most egregious effect of a lack of accountability is the tendency to perpetuate conditions that, by any account, are not in their best interests. Further, this lack of accountability though widespread, exists with impunity. Instances of sustained expressions of outrage are rare, even among Blacks who are most often those most negatively affected.
Accountability starts by meeting one’s individual responsibility, which also relates to one’s values, caring, ethics and morality, none of which are popular topics of public discourse. Here’s an example of accountability beginning with the individual: Something seemingly as inconsequential as failing to return phone calls (for whatever reason) suggests returning the call is not a top priority. On a purely personal basis, this may be fine. But in a group or organizational context, the implications are far different and failure to do so is likely unacceptable.
A person with explicit membership in a group (including accepting its purpose and objectives) who fails to respond to a request for their availability for a meeting of the group, is another example. This does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest or concern. It does, however, suggest that responding to the request is not the person’s immediate priority and may be inconsistent with a stated “buy-in” to the group’s agenda.
Some may consider these examples trivial but I would argue that they are snapshots of what occurs all the time, albeit in other more familiar venues. Those who have worked extensively with Blacks in efforts to develop common ground and/or unity on issues like politics, police abuse and education, will undoubtedly resonate with the above examples-and have little trouble supplying their own experiences about the implications and contradictions of people’s stated concerns versus their actual behavior.
This discussion is intended to be descriptive, not judgmental but it is important that conditions be described as they really are because reality is not only plus, it’s both positive and negative. Over emphasizing or ignoring one or the other is both inaccurate and a disservice to the community and those attempting to help bring about strategic, positive change.
As mentioned earlier, many Black leaders do tend to overemphasize the positive at the expense of minimizing continuing barriers to Blacks’ progress. Well intentioned or not, this is a mistake. Among other things, it minimizes white privilege and fails to hold the “system” accountable; as important, it also fails to hold Black people responsible for leading the struggle for change.
Although brutally enslaved and stripped of family, values, language and culture-some are argue it is precisely because of this-many Blacks are complicit in prolonging their own oppression by not relentlessly challenging the barriers to progress and total justice. Clearly, this requires that Blacks, collectively, see current conditions as challenges not immutable obstacles.
For Blacks in particular, accountability must become a top-down, bottom-up proposition, starting with parents exercising greater responsibility and control of their children, and ultimately, include Black leadership at every level. Yes, this will require drastically different individual and collective mindsets, likely based on Blacks being sufficiently dissatisfied to behave differently. And it means realizing that taking unaccustomed risks is indispensible for achieving sustainable progress and success. Blacks’ storied resilience has served us well, but is hardly enough. We must reclaim, embody and actively represent the best of our great and proud history.
Fundamentally, accountability is about ethical and moral behavior, not empty platitudes that perpetuate a status quo inimical to our own best interests.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.