The word “accountability” is used so often and indiscriminately, it has become an almost meaningless buzz word, especially for those in leadership positions. Today’s column examines some implications of a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of accountability among African Americans. (The definition of accountable includes “obliged to account for one’s acts…and accepting responsibility for one’s actions or inactions.”) For purposes of this discussion, accountability applies to virtually every stratum, from formal organizational leadership to individuals’ obligation to be accountable for their own behavior.
Accountability seems most often mentioned when describing the performance of elected or appointed public officials. However, the community’s failure to recognize and acknowledge the need for broad, overall accountability absolves everyone, leadership in particular, from any sustainable accountability. Such patented lack of accountability by so many, aggravates the very conditions that continue to block Black’s forward movement.
For Blacks, the most egregious effect of a lack of accountability is the resulting tendency to perpetuate a status quo that, by any measure, is not in their best interests. Widespread lack of accountability continues with impunity in most Black communities where outrage is typically a moment, not the start of sustained, strategic protest. (Two weeks ago, this column posed the question of whether there will be sustainable accountability around Trayvon Martin’s killing; is it really a spark that ignites sustainable protest or simply another wasted opportunity?)
Accountability begins by meeting one’s individual responsibility for agreed on work or performance, then adhering to moral and ethical values which are anything but popular topics of public discourse these days. A mundane example: Something seemingly as unimportant as failing to return phone calls suggests not doing so is not a top priority. Of course, exigencies may prevent a person’s calling back, but a pattern of not doing so is not only disrespectful, but a failure to be accountable. On certain occasions, this can have irreparable consequences for a given group.
Another example: A person in a group accepts a group’s purpose and objectives but regularly fails to attend meetings or responds to meeting notices. This may or may not indicate a lack of interest or concern, but such behavior does indicate that attending the group’s meetings and/or responding to the group’s request to do so, is obviously not an immediate priority and is inconsistent with their professed “buy-in” to the group’s mission.
These examples may seem trivial but I would argue that they constitute snapshots of what occurs all the time and sometimes with serious negative consequences. I’m sure that those who have worked extensively with Black people to develop common ground and/or unity on important issues like police abuse, education and politics, resonate with these examples and have little or no trouble supplying their own accounts about the implications and contradictions of individuals, and groups, stated priorities versus their actual behavior.
This discussion is important because problems and adverse conditions effecting Black folks should be described honestly; reality is both plus and minus and soft peddling distorts the truth Overemphasizing or ignoring one or the other has serious negative implications. This is especially true in the social and political arenas when oftentimes, ostensibly trivial matters derail a group’s effort and/or particular project.
These days, Black leaders tend to overemphasize the positive (or the status quo) while downplaying continuing barriers to Blacks’ progress which often correlates with their lack of accountability. Failure to deal with both plus and minus makes it virtually impossible to effectively challenge race-based inequities or hold the “system” accountable. (It also obscures Black people’s responsibility to hold their own leadership accountable.)
Although brutally enslaved and stripped of family, values, language and culture, Blacks are perhaps the most resilient people in history. But too many of us are complicit in prolonging our systemic oppression by failing to honestly and consistently challenge barriers to civil rights and social justice. Lasting solutions to the 21st Century’s daunting, “post racial” challenges require that we re-dedicate ourselves to collective work and action; anything less will not get the job done.
Accountability is a top-down, bottom-up proposition. It starts with parents exercising greater responsibility, respect and control of their children and then, holding Black leadership at every level, accountable. First, this necessitates rigorously re-examining the prevailing individualistic and materialistic norms, then (or simultaneously) developing drastically different, group- oriented values. Most likely, this will occur and become increasingly evident as Blacks become sufficiently dissatisfied to behave differently. New mindsets also require courageous risk taking, it is indispensable for achieving sustainable progress.
Accountability is about modeling ethical and moral behavior, as opposed to mouthing empty platitudes that perpetuate a status quo inimical to our own best interests. We must reclaim, internalize and actively represent the best of our great and proud history.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org