The rash of murders of young Black men by the police, starting with Trayvon Martin generated concern and enough outrage to launch Black Lives Matter: Then the massacre of Bible study members in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a young white terrorist.
Accountability for these horrific acts rests squarely with the white perpetrators and the racist system that spawned them. But shouldn’t Blacks too be accountable for working to prevent such atrocities? Today’s column revisits an earlier one on the broader issue of Black accountability in challenging barriers to social and economic justice.
The word “accountability” is used so often and indiscriminately, it has become a meaningless buzz word, especially for those in leadership positions. This column examines some implications of the disconnection 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 this discussion, accountability applies to every stratum, from formal organizational leadership to individual and group responsibility.
Accountability is often mentioned when describing the performance of elected or appointed public officials. However, the community’s failure to also recognize and acknowledge its need to be accountable tends to absolve all factions of that responsibility. This blanket lack of accountability feeds the very conditions that continue to block Black’s forward progress. The most damaging by-product of a lack of accountability is that it helps 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 and, as mentioned, outrage is typically only a moment, not the start of sustainable protest. (I posed the question of whether there would be sustainable outrage and accountability over Trayvon Martin’s killing. Of course, it turned out not to be “a spark that ignited sustainable protest” but just another wasted opportunity, until Ferguson.)
Accountability begins by meeting one’s individual responsibility to adhere to an agreed on issue or performance, and for purposes of this discussion, also adhering to moral and ethical values which has happened extensively for years. A simplistic example: Something seemingly as unimportant as failing to return phone calls suggests a lack of accountability. Of course, any number of things might prevent a person’s calling back, but a pattern of not doing so is not only disrespectful, but a failure to be accountable. At times, this can have serious consequences.
Another case: A person accepts the group’s purpose and objectives but regularly fails to attend scheduled meetings or respond 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 neither an immediate priority nor consistent with her, or his, professed “buy-in” to the group’s mission.
These examples may seem trivial but I would argue that they are snapshots of what occurs all the time and sometimes with serious negative consequences. I’m sure that those who have worked extensively with Black groups to develop common ground and/or unity on important issues like police abuse, education and politics, can readily resonate with these examples andwould have little or no trouble supplying their own accounts about the implications and contradictions of individuals’, stated priorities versus their actual behavior.
This discussion is important because problems and adverse conditions affecting Black folks should be dealt with honestly. Reality includes both the positive and negative, and soft peddling negatives distorts the truth. Over emphasizing or ignoring one or the other can have serious consequences. This is especially true in the social justice and political arena when often times, seemingly trivial matters derail a group’s strategy or efforts to achieve a particular goal or objective.
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. Further, failure to deal honestly 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 themselves and their leadership accountable.
Though brutally enslaved and stripped of family, values, language and culture, Blacks are probably the most resilient people on the planet. But too many of us are complicit in reinforcing systemic oppression by failing to honestly and consistently challenge barriers to our civil and human rights. Lasting solutions to the 21st Century’s daunting, “post racial” challenges require that we alter our mindsets and 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, caring, and control of their children while holding Black leadership at every level, accountable. This requires rigorous re-examination of our mindsets and rejecting the prevailing individualistic and materialistic values. Ultimately, this means Blacks must again practice moral and ethical values. Most likely, this will occur when we (individually and collectively) become sufficiently dissatisfied to behave differently.
Again, a new accountability will be based on Black people embracing ethical and moral behavior, as opposed to mouthing empty platitudes that perpetuate a status quo that is contrary to our their own best interests. This requires reclaiming and internalizing the communal values that defined our great and proud history.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org