When Camus imagined his absurd hero, it is unlikely that the image of black folk served as his inspiration. Yet the Sisyphean nature of Black American struggle suggests that their collective plight might have prepared them well for coronation into the League of Absurd Heroes, taking their rightful place alongside the likes of Don Juan and the Rebel.
(Sisyphus, you might recall from Greek myth, is the king of Corinth condemned to an eternity of pushing a large boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down each time it nears the top.)
Having been inundated my entire life with such tired refrains as "Things ain't as bad as it was when I was comin' up" or "We've made a great deal of progress" or "We've come a long way," I began, at some point in my young life, to question the very rationale employed by those who spoke such sincere rhetoric. Very recently my suspicions were confirmed, as revealed by stories featured in my hometown daily paper, the Baltimore Sun, and in that most venerable of national newspapers, the New York Times.
Of course, one needs no confirmation from the media to understand that the African American community is in -- to put it mildly -- very bad shape. But the numbers reported by both the Times and the Sun articulate the dire situation more forcefully than our own senses. As of this writing, "Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn," remains one of the 15 most emailed articles on the NY Times website, two days after publication. The article found its way into my mailbox several times over, and I've forwarded it to most everyone in my address book. My aunt, herself the mother of two black girls and one black boy, says that the figures cited by Times reporter Erik Eckholm are depressing -- and this from a woman who has worked over a decade with the Baltimore City criminal courts, where the lives of young black men are derailed daily. Suburban soccer moms must have been absolutely horrified.
Why would anyone be depressed or horrified? It might have to do with the fact that 50 percent of black men in their 20s are without jobs, a jobless rate that is twice that of their white and Hispanic counterparts. Or that over 50 percent of black males living in the inner city fail to graduate high school. And then there are those pesky incarceration numbers, the ones that tell us that 30 percent of black men with only a high school education have served jail time by their 30s, a figure that jumps to 60 percent for those who drop out. It looks like the powers-that-be implemented an "All Black Men Left Behind" policy while we weren't looking.
And it's not as though black households in general are doing too well, either. Jay Hancock, a columnist for the Sun, pointed out as much in his column, "'Rising' net worth of blacks is half-truth." This one seems to have flown below the national radar, but it is as equally alarming. Working from data compiled by the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, Hancock informs his readers that black households have a median net worth of $20,000 -- that is, half of all black households have a net worth below $20,000, a figure that is seven times lower than white, non-Hispanic households. The average African American household net worth rose to $111,000 in 2004, which suggests gross economic disparity within the black community. It also doesn't help the cause when only 48 percent of African Americans own homes, as compared to 75 percent of whites.
The question thus becomes, what is the meaning of progress? A decrease in blatant public displays of racism is a faulty way to measure progress and equity and gains. Nor is citing the rise of black millionaires and influential figures a proper measure. It's not as though American history is without its share of influential and wealthy black individuals. Before Oprah we had Madam C.J. Walker, and before Condi Rice there was Frederick Douglass and Ralph Bunche.
Now, no one is suggesting that there has been absolutely no progress made -- ok, plenty of people are, including my 72 year old grandfather and far more prominent and respected African Americans, as well as whites. But I'm not about to brave that terrain -- to be frank, I don't have the lifetime of comparative experiences to make such claims seem valid -- though the numbers speak for themselves.
But, people tend to remember the one step forward and forget about the two steps back. Sure, we won the battle against legalized segregation, but de facto segregation is alive, well, and obvious. Take a gander at the pioneering work being done by Jonathan Kozol, for example. And while lynching is passť, that doesn't keep black boys from being body bagged, nor does it solve for the fact that, according to former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, 85,000 fewer black deaths might have occurred in 2000 if not for persistent health disparities. Even the black-white college enrollment gap has increased since the 1970s. Dog bites and spit have been replaced by stray bullets and we're all claiming progress.
This will likely be misinterpreted as yet another misguided rant by an ungrateful and disrespectful, morally deprived member of the hip-hop generation. And just to incite further condemnation, I'll conclude with a rap lyric from the much-maligned Kanye West:
"Racism still alive, they just be concealin' it!"
R. Darryl Foxworth is Associate editor of LiP Magazine and a frequent contributor to Baltimore City Paper. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, ChickenBones: A Journal, The Black Commentator, Baltimore Chronicle, Dissident Voice, and Left Hook, amongst other publications.
Other Articles by R. Darryl Foxworth