Persistent poverty and income inequality coupled with centuries of institutional racism enforced by a sophisticated and racist caste system has made the future of Black people bleak to the point that there seems to be no exit sign to escape the dungeons of stagnation.
But it will be up to the next generation of courageous and creative leaders- Black students currently on college campuses- who are determined to make significant difference- to change the course of history and offer bold and innovative solutions to confront the worsening state of inequality in the Black community.
That was the message Bankole Thompson, one of the nation’s leading Black journalists and cultural critics, whose work has centered on championing racial and economic justice issues, brought to Dillard University in New Orleans, a revered Black educational institution and the alma mater of the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., the father of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thompson is the executive dean and editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, a national anti-poverty think tank headquartered in Detroit, the nation’s Black city. He accepted the invitation of Dillard University Center for Racial Justice to travel to New Orleans and deliver a keynote lecture on race and poverty on Thursday, April 7, which also marked the week of the April 4 anniversary death of Dr. King.
Thompson is Detroit’s Columnist of Conscience, writing twice-a-week in The Detroit News, where his candid, searing, impactful analysis and commentary about the presidency, public opinion, culture and socioeconomic issues appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of the daily two-hour political and social commentary and urban affairs radio program “REDLINE with Bankole Thompson,” broadcast on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, Monday-Friday, 11am-1pm EST and heard across Michigan and in parts of Ontario, Canada, Ohio and Indiana.
Thompson, who was given an award by the university after his presentation spoke on the theme: “Race and Poverty: A Question of Leadership and Ending the Nightmare of Black Exploitation,” in a well-received speech that focused heavily on the issue of income inequality and the ongoing homeownership crisis facing many poor and disenfranchised Black families.
“I want to examine this profound subject: the nexus between poverty and racism through the lens of one of the most profound issues driving the national conversation about the economic state of Black America: Income Inequality, an issue so critical that it will help determine the future existence of Black life in the next American century,” Thompson said in his opening remarks. “I come here today because the mandate of history and the verdict of my conscience leave me no other choice but to state that Black life in this dispensation, and the demand for total freedom from the vestiges of Jim Crow, must be thoroughly examined through the lens of a bitter and heart-wrenching pilgrimage that started in 1619.”
Thompson explained why the foundational impact of slavery continues to this day to have adverse impact on Black life.
“The physical chains may have been removed in New Orleans, Detroit, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Baltimore and other places, but the chains of Black exploitation still remain in place, and have produced nothing significant but mass income inequality, which has stymied Black communities across the nation into a permanent of state of humiliating misery,” Thompson said. “The reality is that every time that Black people take one step forward towards their attempt to level the playing field, they face a degrading impasse of economic inequality. There is no exit sign in the trenches of economic stagnation.”
The journalist said, “What is often not acknowledged is that centuries of well-codified and targeted discriminatory policies continue to hinder the ability of Black communities to assert independence over their own economic future and to enjoy the basic rights afforded equal citizenship.”
On the other hand, Thompson stated, “Because of a deeply entrenched racist caste system, and a litany of unjust guarantees of White economic dominance and success that were born in the American south, White people continue to sail on the high seas of wealth and privilege. Black people continue to drown deeper into the oceans of poverty.”
During his presentation Thompson infused the most recent 2020 statistics from the Federal Reserve Bank, based on new data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, in his address to show the gulf between Black and White wealth. For example, he noted how the report places the median young Black family’s wealth at only $600, which radically contrast the median young White family, who has a wealth of $25,400.
He also zeroed in on the report about the substantial disparities in ownership of equities across race explaining how for example, the typical White family has $50,600 in equities that they could tap into in an emergency, compared to just $14,400 for the typical Black family.
“In the same federal government’s report, it is stated that, for homeowners, the typical White families’ home value is $230,000, while the typical Black family’s home is valued less at $150,000,” Thompson said. “We’ve also seen reports where Black families get lowballed for their property by appraisers but the value of their homes significantly rises to the top when these Black people have their White friends pretend to be the owners of the homes.”
To remind students of the urgency of the economic crisis facing Blacks, Thompson highlighted a 2017 report from the Boston Globe, which documented how Black Bostonians at the bottom of the economic scale.
“Consider the fact that it was only in 2017, that the Boston Globe reported that the median net worth of Black families in Boston is $8 compared to $247, 500 for White families. That’s 31,000 times more than African Americans in Boston,” Thompson said. “But the problem here is that whenever voices of conscience from the Black community call for race-based policies to begin a redemptive healing in our democracy, the forces of regression cry out: special treatment, affirmative action, quotas and yet every report shows that Black people are at the bottom of the scale.”
He added, “The documented reports I laid out here tonight join other reports not mentioned here that show the correlation between discriminatory policies and poverty in the Black community. They put to rest the lie that a rising tide lifts all boats. What rising tide? So far it has not worked for Black people, and it will never work until those who write policy begin to specifically employ in their tools targeted programs that will uplift Black people out of the economic dungeons of inequality. Until they write economic justice with Black ink on White paper.”
The speech touched on Detroit’s over-taxation of homeowners under Mayor Mike Duggan.
“Let me clear tonight. Freedom and equality for Black people in America in 2022, cannot be discussed outside of Detroit, the largest Black city in the nation, which is currently going through an economic reconstruction, not emancipation under Mike Duggan, the first White liberal mayor in 40 years,” Thompson said. “And two years ago, a bombshell report revealed that Black homeowners of Detroit were overtaxed by $600 million on their properties, an issue that has still not been addressed. Sister Simone Campbell, a leading social justice voice in the Catholic Church, an ally of Pope Francis, and who sits on the National Advisory Board of The PuLSE Institute offered this reaction to the over-taxation of Detroit homeowners under the current administration: ‘The theft of $600 million from Detroiters through over-taxation shakes me to the core. This robbery is an attack on the common good. It undermines faith in government and further exploits people of color already being hurt by this unjust system.”
Echoing the well-known slogan of the American Revolution, Thompson said in the halls of Dillard University’s Georges Auditorium, “Somewhere through the vestibule of time, I hear the rallying cry out of Detroit: No Taxation Without Representation.”
But the pressing problems of overtaxation, homeownership and income inequality that Black communities are dealing with around the country, will only be changed by a new generation of leaders coming out of educational institutions like Dillard University according to Thompson.
“But we also need new effective and bold Black leadership to confront these problems and end the mass economic exploitation that is taking place at our expense. You are the future leaders of the Black community,” Thompson said. “You are the ambassadors of the Black community to the outside world. We are counting on you. We hear the ancestors calling us into the corridors of history this evening to offer a new direction: Be bold. Be courageous in asking tough Socratic questions.”
He urged the students to be courageous.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo that relies on your silence and reticence to continue its Black exploitation,” Thompson said. “Don’t be afraid to call out leadership among our ranks who simply want to go along to get along with the programs that are designed to keep us in a permanent state of economic degradation.”
Thompson called on the students to demand political accountability of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
“The long walk to freedom that Blacks have been embarking upon requires that we challenge both Democrats and Republicans to bring a real healing balm to the table of equity and justice,” Thompson told the students. “No longer must Black people settle for empty promises and sterile passivity from Democrats that hold Black progress hostage, and total rejection from Republicans, who continue to depend on the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to get Black support during elections.”
The speech brilliantly weaved in the strands of the history of the 20th century Black freedom struggle and at the same time, challenged the students to take on the opportunities available to find equitable solutions.
“And in New Orleans tonight, I say there is some sort of a natural law that we all understand all too well without having gone to law school: and that is the inescapable responsibility to hand over the mantle of leadership to the next generation,” Thompson said. “ This generation that we are living in is creating a revolution in the age of social media and in the digital world. Their worth cannot be underestimated, their value cannot be ignored and their energy cannot be stopped where the unprecedented innovation in technology and STEM education stand out as a great example. We find this generation here at Dillard and the rest of the interconnected Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”
Thompson offered inspiration for the students to take charge.
“We are here tonight in an educational sanctuary. On the sacred grounds of this campus, walked great men and women who shaped history. These grounds felt the steps of Reverend Martin Luther King Sr, Ambassador Andrew Young, Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook…and others. You are the inheritors of a great history and a distinguished example of committed public service and transcending civil rights leadership,” Thompson said. Tonight, we hear the ancestors calling us into the corridors of history to define a new era to fight poverty and to confront the monster of racism and to break the cycle of economic misery.”
Earlier in the speech, he underscored the crucial role of institutions like Dillard University as part of the interconnected Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“Despite facing today’s glaring manacles of grossly inequitable funding in higher education that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been subjected to, you have been a towering example of the best and finest minds to come out of the Black experience,” Thompson said. Despite the storm of Hurricane Katrina, which two decades ago shockingly and embarrassingly lifted the veil on an ignored and frequently dejected perennial mass underclass in the Black community, you have weathered every storm in continuing to meticulously prepare and vibrantly produce the future models of Black educational excellence and leadership.”
Thompson singled out the leadership and contributions of Dillard University president Dr. Walter Kimbrough.
“Your president Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, has been an important voice on the national scene constantly making the case that the future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities are tied to the destiny of this nation. That the two are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually inclusive,” Thompson said. “I want to thank President Dr. Kimbrough for leading this institution with distinction and with grace, and for so remarkably in the last decade gallantly upheld the legacy of Dillard as an educational thermometer that has been at the center of a cultural revolution in education throughout the great pipelines of history.”
The speech touted the importance of the Center for Racial Justice under its founding director Dr. Ashraf Esmail.
“I realize that the Center for Racial Justice was created as part of the response to the cruel and public execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis two years ago, whose death remains a stark reminder of the devaluation of Black life in our democratic experiment. Today, the Center is an important initiative to foster not only conversations that are crucial to Black existence and underscore the need for critical race theory, but also to force those in leadership to offer equitable solutions to the menace of police violence on Black bodies and endemic poverty that has reduced Black communities to deserts of economic desolation and racism, which remains a cancer eating at the fabric of our nation.”
He continued with rhetorical deftness: “This is your time to do so because Frantz Fanon, ‘Each generation must out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill or betray it.’ This is your era because Marcus Garvey said, ‘Up you mighty race, accomplish what you will.’ This is your moment because Mayor Angelou said, ‘You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. But still like dust, I’ll rise.”
“As I prepare to conclude my remarks, I want you to remember that every human being, lifted by their community must be driven with a strong sense of giving back. It is not about what you have and how successful you are, it is much about what you are giving back to the community, the reinvestment of intellectual capital in our community. In the principles of Kwanzaa, the concept of a shared sense of community is ingrained. That teaches us that we should always approach life and the marketplace not as a self-based proposition, but as a community proposition that yields the desired result for all,” Thompson stated. “Rise up to the challenge, now. You must become the philosophers of our time. You must become the vibrant legal minds of this era. You must become the medical wizards of this generation, to save our lives. You must become the engineers who build new roads and paths into the future. You must become the nurses of this generation, who will continue to build upon the legacies of great nurses and help address the health disparities in the Black community that the pandemic has exposed. You must become the social workers, who hold our communities together in times of distress and pain. You must become business leaders who are driven not just by profit but, by a need to enhance the quality of life in our communities. You must become the teachers who shape the future just as your future is being shaped by Dillard University.”
“So, this evening I am confident that while we are all laborers in the vineyard of possibilities, and there we toil in earnest to bring about the best, we are still masters of our own destiny. I recognize that the business of social transformation and courageous Black leadership is not an easy one. We understand that when we speak of transformation we are confronted with one of the greatest task because it requires a radical evolution of our thinking. So we are talking about change that is deeply rooted in the mind, soul and spirit. But this change can only come with a fundamental willingness to make a difference for ourselves and generations yet unborn,” Thompson said. “My friends, you have an inescapable obligation to affirm America’s promise that all are created equal. Your history dictates that you cannot be fearful, you cannot slow down and you must not back off because you were founded to make significant difference. No educational institution can claim to love the Black community than Dillard University. Your heritage dictates that you have the moral license to speak out against oppression and other forms of despicable immoral acts such as racism, grinding poverty and economic subjugation. That is what makes the work of the Center for Racial Justice under Dr. Esmail all the more significant and needed.”
Thompson urged the students to heed the warning of William Shakespeare when he said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the floor leads onto fortune, omitted, all the voyage of their life, is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures.”
In conclusion, Thompson said, “It is not okay for all of us in this auditorium to go to sleep while those who are at the bottom of the economic scale continue to spiral down the doldrums. It is in your hands Dillard University students to change the course of history once and for all.”