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New Century, New Civil Rights Movement
by Kevin M. Briscoe
Contrary to widespread belief, the American civil rights movement is not simply a 20th-century phenomenon; in fact, it has undergone a number of phases. The first, beginning at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, culminated in three constitutional amendments"”13th, 14th and 15th"”which abolished slavery, ensured equal protection under the law for African Americans, and prohibited the denial of rights based on race, respectively. Other laws guaranteed the famous"”or is it infamous?"”"40 acres and a mule." Fast forwarding to the mid-20th century, the civil rights movement was then marked by the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision to eliminate the "separate-but-equal" Jim Crow laws that governed society, followed by President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act. Now, in the infant stages of this Information Age, a third movement"”based on the economic empowerment of Blacks"”is taking shape (read on, you'll understand the emphasis). All across the country, African Americans are embracing the new paradigm of PowerNomics that eschews the political and social gains of past civil rights movements in favor of economic self-sufficiency.
"New" Philosophy Dates Back 200 Years
At the heart of PowerNomics is the notion of "ethno-aggregation," the pooling of resources and power to produce, distribute and consume in a way that creates goods and wealth that Black people control. The PowerNomics vision, according to its architect, is "a Black America that is economically self-sufficient and competitive by the year 2005."
"PowerNomics is a new way for Black people to start seeing, thinking and behaving in racial matters," said Claude Anderson Ed.D., (right) president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Harvest Institute and author of PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America. "Black folks have been socially conditioned and socially engineered to see everything upside down and backwards. PowerNomics is designed to teach Black folks to see things in an appropriate manner, to put their own self-interests first. Secondly, it teaches them to get the new tools and strategies to begin breaking down the racial monopolies that whites are holding against them in this society."
While PowerNomics bandies about terms like "functional pluralism" or "vertical integration" or "group-based, alternative economic structure," and is sometimes heavy on rhetoric, the book is succinctly divided into sections describing the centuries-long pattern of inappropriate behavior displayed by African Americans, how we can organize for empowerment, and specific principles and practices. With the passion of a Baptist minister and the persuasiveness of a 19th-century snake oil salesman, Anderson preaches group economics and group politics as strategies for overcoming his assertion that "whites now control almost 100 percent of this nation's wealth, power, resources, privileges, businesses and all levels of government."
When you read PowerNomics (and I urge you to do so), you may be put off by Anderson's minimization of the social and political gains of the modern-era civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, but, as Anderson explains, the shift in emphasis from the first movement to the next removed the essential ingredient necessary to pull us up from second-class citizenship. "I've never been too much into civil rights unless you're going back to the original intent of civil rights, which was talking about economics. Now, we perceive civil rights as some kind of laws that govern how people relate to each other and get along with each other. That's not what it's about," he said. "The first civil rights laws said there are only two thing Black people were going to be: either they're going to be slaves or they're going to be free. And, if they don't get the minimum 40 acres, a mule and $100, they'll always be slaves. But, Blacks never got their 40 acres, they never got their mule, and they never got their $100.
"The new paradigm must go back to the [intent of the] original civil rights laws, which were saying that Black folks are suffering from a structural economic inequity that came about as a direct result of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow semi-slavery that deprived them of not only their humanity, their life, their health and their education, but also the fruits of their labor, which they could then pass on as an inheritance to their offspring."
But, wait. Don't we have access to better facilities? Don't we now have the right to vote? Didn't the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. or Medgar Evers and others mean anything? Do their efforts hold any value?
"They had some value, but that value is questionable because of the negatives they also engendered. For instance, you get along much better now. You can now marry whites, attend their schools and be in their culture and community," said Anderson. "So what they did is make you a guest in everything they own. But, you don't own anything. You didn't own anything when you were a slave, now you don't own anything when you're integrated."
If that doesn't get your hackles up, Anderson saves some of his invective for the "so-called successful Blacks" like Earl Graves, Bill Cosby, Oprah and others. "That's not Black success. Part of the problem that Black folks got is in trying to find the exceptional Black, exceptional in the sense that white folks can pull them to their breasts and say ˜this is a special Black ...we can endorse him and aid him to prove two things, that we're not racists and, second, that we need a few Blacks to be successful in a democracy.' But, whites have what sociologists call a ˜tipping point.' Anytime Blacks cross about six percent of anything, white folks go on alert. Why? Because we live in a society where the majority will win and rule and the minority will lose and suffer.
"PowerNomics will teach Blacks that you must first learn to ethno-aggregate, you cannot play a team sport as an individual. Power only exists in a concentrated form."
PowerNomics in Action
PowerNomics"”both as a civil rights strategy and as a book"”is more than a collection of awe- (or ire-, depending on your perspective) inspiring words. In the wake of Anderson's countless speeches in African American communities across the country lay a number of specific examples of economic self-sufficiency at work.
As a graduate student at Auburn University, James Harris wrote a research paper in which he outlined the plans for Heritage Lemonades. Inspired by PowerNomics, Harris launched Ensemble Beverage Co., a Montgomery, Ala.-based producer of soft drinks. "PowerNomics gave me an urgent set of specific directions. I didn't need motivation, I needed direction," said Harris. "Blacks consume a disproportionate number of soft drinks, so that was the PowerNomics competitive advantage for Ensemble." In keeping with the PowerNomics notion of vertical integration, Harris' church is helping him acquire space for expansion, and Harris banks with First Tuskegee, the largest Black bank in America.
In the there's-good-news-and-bad-news-file, Anderson and Philadelphia businessman Walter Lomax successfully launched the Delmarva Premium Seafood Co., an indoor aquaculture facility on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In May 2001, the company"”formerly known as the PowerNomics Enterprises Corp. when founded two years ago"”secured approval for an initial public offering from the Securities and Exchange Commission, and later established an import-export relationship with the government of the Bahamas. Unfortunately for Anderson and his investors, they were unable to meet the minimum $2 million in funds required by the SEC, prompting termination of the IPO until further notice.
"Even though the effort did not result in a listing on the NASDAQ, it was historic," Anderson said. "It demonstrates that Blacks can work together toward a collective goal." Despite withdrawing the stock offering, Delmarva's operations continue and a second IPO is being considered.
Allies or Foes?
In all corners of the country, diversity has become a cultural buzzword, a war cry for the traditional civil rights organizations to advocate for minority representation in everything from engineering disciplines to the number of minorities on television. The Silicon Valley Project, a Rainbow PUSH Coalition-led initiative to "expand the participation of women and people of color in all phases of technology," is a case in point. Although the project works on issues relating to access to capital, business development and utilizing technology to "transform the digital divide into digital opportunity," its focus remains on what Anderson calls a "minority solution to a Black problem."
"When people use a minority solution to a Black problem, it totally eradicates and insults 400 years of suffering of Black folks," he said. "How are you going to equate me to a language minority or a gender minority with all the suffering that's been done to me over 400 years? If I'm no different from the person who came to this country yesterday, you've just wiped out my history. How can I then justify Black History Month or reparations?"
Though loath to comment directly to Anderson's charges, Silicon Valley Project Director Butch Wing, an Asian-American, said: "Our efforts, when it boils right down to it, are focused in the main on African-American entrepreneurship and the Black community. In fact, we're smacked around a lot by the Latino and Asian communities for not paying more attention to the Latino and Asian side. Our work is de facto African American in its thrust."
Wing added that ethno-aggregation as an economic strategy is a sound one used by other ethnic groups in the U.S. "Many have followed this strategy. The Asian community in Silicon Valley, for example, has its own venture capital network. [Blacks] must move in that direction [as well]."
Despite Wing's assertions, Anderson said the traditional civil rights organizations are receptive to the PowerNomics concepts, but often skittish about taking an official position for fear of alienating their corporate benefactors. "I was just in Cleveland at the [NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner] and from what I hear from people on the board is that [Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president and CEO] is telling people to get as close as you can to what Anderson is saying as possible, but don't get too close because white corporations won't give us any money.
Anderson appears to be on to something, at least on the local level.
"I would say that the NAACP, in general, has been an advocate for civil rights and economics was left to other organizations, like the National Urban League," said Stanley Miller, an executive committee member of the Cleveland chapter. "But, in today's environment, the NAACP in Cleveland has put a stake in the ground that civil rights includes economic empowerment, and having people have jobs and own businesses, and be able to maintain their own communities.
Miller also agreed with Anderson's assessment that current strategies, including his own organization's historical stance, "dilute the process" of helping Black people help themselves.
"I'm not one to have an organization fight within itself, but I do know it's a problem and, at some point, we should stand up for African American economic empowerment as other organizations do for their minority groups," said Miller.
The National Urban League declined comment.
Anderson said he remains hopeful that, as he continues to take the PowerNomics show on the road, more African America will hop on the bandwagon to group success. "We're the most successful thing in the country right now," he said. "I would say, without hesitation, that our movement is bigger than the Urban League, the NAACP and the Rainbow Coalition."
But, what happens when the white power structure decides to use its machinery of influence and wealth to minimize Anderson's voice?
"They could do that, but then they're stuck with a dilemma," said Anderson. "Because any time you rank people in a hierarchy and suppress them, the person on the bottom, sooner or later, will explode and fight. As Black people continue to seek deeper into the abyss, you're going to see clashes."
Kevin M. Briscoe is the editor of the National Society of Black Engineers magazine. He was also the editor for "PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America."