This year Denzel Washington received his sixth Oscar nomination for his role as airline pilot Whip Whitaker in the movie Flight. He did not win the Oscar, but the nomination made him the most nominated black actor in film history.
The title of the movie has a double meaning. The major event of the movie is the ill-fated flight of a jet with 102 passengers on board. The plane has a gross mechanical failure, but pilot Whitaker is able to do what no other pilot is able to do rescue the plane from a dive and land it in a field with only six fatalities. This happens early on in the movie. The balance of the movie is the drama of Whitaker’s flight from the reality that he is an alcoholic. At first he is viewed as a heroic figure with simply a character flaw, but the more he flees from the truth of his reality the more pathetic he becomes.
It was probably not intended but Flight is an accurate and haunting metaphor for Black America. Black America is in full flight from facing the truth of our reality. On Tuesday February 26 the Washington Post on the third page of the A section reported that Institute of Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University was about to release a report on the black – white wealth gap. The stunning nature of the report can be seen in the first few paragraphs.
The report, which researchers called the most detailed look ever at the roots of the racial wealth gap, is drawn from the life experiences of nearly 1,700 working Americans between 1984 and 2009. That quarter-century was an era of significant racial progress in the country. The black middle class expanded, black college graduation rates tripled, and black elected officials moved into a broad range of public offices, including the presidency.
Despite that progress, the wealth gap between whites and blacks nearly tripled among study participants, going from $85,000 per family in 1985 to $236,500 in 2009. Overall, the median net worth of whites in the study was $265,000 in 2009, compared with $28,500 for blacks. A broader survey done by federal officials has found even larger disparities, with blacks having a nickel of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by the median white family.
In other words, when it comes to the concrete assessment of racial progress in economic terms, the only terms that really count; Black America is in dire straits. Worse than that, we are in full flight from facing this reality. The major black web services, The Root, The Grio, Black America Web, and Black Voices did not and to this date have not highlighted this as a major news story. Most did not and have not mentioned these findings at all. The Voting Rights act debate in the Supreme Court, the mysterious death of the first openly gay candidate for mayor in Mississippi, the ongoing struggle around the late James Brown estate, the first potential black bachelorette, the outrage of the white model portraying an African, Queen, the 14year jail sentence for a gospel singer due to his Ponzi scheme were deemed news items to be featured on the sites. To this day none of our high profile African Americans leaders, our civil rights leaders, our political leaders, commentators or clergy have highlighted or discussed the significance of this report and the searing truth of the dire economic circumstance of black America.
We have a long history of running from our economic reality. In 1987 Theodore Cross published The Black Power Imperative. He stated then that each and every item on the black agenda needs to be judged whether or not it adds to the economic empowerment of black people.
In 1994 Dr. Claud Anderson published his seminal work Black Labor, White Wealth documenting the strategies and goals whites have used to solidify power and privilege. He pushed past the symptoms of our problems such as teen pregnancy, drugs, decline in family values, violence, etc and clearly identifying the root of our problem as race and the unjust distribution of this nation’s wealth, power and resources. Whites control almost 100% of the power, wealth and resources and blacks practically nothing. This latest report bears out this truth. Dr. Anderson laid out some general strategies in Black Labor; White Wealth which implemented could empower black communities economically. There was some public discussion but not nearly enough for a reorientation of our general thinking.
In 2001 Dr. Anderson followed with Powernomics, a specific plan with specific strategies to lead us out of economic ruin. By this time however black America was enthralled with the myth that our black middle class was expanding and our prosperity was just around the corner.
In Nov 2007 before the melt down of the economy and the election of President Obama in 2008, The Brookings Institution released a report of its longitudinal data study of white and black family economic mobility from the late 1960′s to the early 2000′s Their conclusion:
White children are more likely to move up the ladder, while black children are more likely to fall down. Startlingly, almost half (45 percent) of black children whose parents were solidly middle class end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to only 16 percent of white children.
Achieving middle-income status does not appear to protect black children from future economic adversity the same way it protects white children.
Again this study was barely noticed by black leadership and black press.
July 26, 2011 the Pew Research Center released a report on income gap and the consequences of the recession. They found:
The recession wreaked havoc on the wealth of all Americans but whites lost the least amount as a percentage of their holdings. The median net worth of a white family now stands at 20 times that of a black family and 18 times that of a Hispanic family – roughly twice the gap that existed before the recession and the biggest gap since data began being collected in 1984.
July 12, 2012 The Washington Post reported:
The implosion of the sub-prime lending market has left a scar on the finances of black Americans – one that not only has wiped out a generation of economic progress but could leave them at a financial disadvantage for decades.
In late January of this year, fresh from the second inauguration of President Obama and his State of the Union speech scholars gathered for an African American Economic Summit at Howard University. Their conclusion was sobering but illustrated a willingness to wrestle with our reality.
As bleak as the economic picture is for black Americans, the immediate prospects for improving it are worse, many participants said. They agreed that chances are remote for the kind of aggressive, targeted action needed to combat those problems and close the economic disparities that have long separated blacks and whites.
However judging from the lack of response to the latest report from the Institute of Assets and Social Policy, like pilot Whip Whitaker in the movie Flight there has been a relapse and again we are in flight from reality. This relapse is simply pathetic.
The Reverend Doctor Earl D. Trent Jr. currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church. He is the author of A Challenge to the Black Church