Dressed in a sharp suit and carrying his baby girl in his arms, Al Grant strolled through the Washington Convention Center, taking in the hustle and bustle of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 43rd annual legislative conference, held recently in the nation’s capital.
Amid the mix of authors, vendors, elected officials and hundreds of participants who attended policy forums and community-building sessions, the husband and father took time to ponder a question that seemed on the minds of many in this largely African-American, upwardly-mobile crowd: how’s black America doing these days?
Indeed, in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, recent assaults on voting rights, impasses over gun control legislation and “Stand Your Ground” laws, comes the question whether the African-American community as a whole is making progress, standing still or even regressing.
Over the course of the four-day confab, theGrio spoke to individuals hailing from across the country and garnered myriad responses.
“Globally, we’re much further ahead,” said Grant, 47, a real estate professional in D.C. “There’s President Obama, black CEOs, and we’re [prominent] in sports and entertainment,” he said. “We have a lot of wealth.”
Yet despite such hard won achievements, a half-century after the famous March on Washington for racial equality and jobs, many conference attendees expressed that vexing collective challenges remain.
Black unemployment rates are higher than whites, drug fueled violence is sweeping inner cities, and there are stubborn inequities in the educational, justice and penal systems, among other issues.
Such problems demand a 21st-century approach, Grant said.
“Now it’s time to educate people on the local level. You can’t [always] legislate change, you have to educate people,” so they can successfully navigate their circumstances, he explained, citing the power of the ballot and African-American economic clout.
Active in national organizations such as ‘100 Black Men’ and engaged in financial literacy mentoring with community-members, Grant believes future progress will depend on those who’ve made it extending themselves to help others.
“We have to reach people — especially young people — and share our knowledge,” he said.
Expressing disappointment about the Travyon Martin trial, he added that select factions of America still tend to view black Americans, particularly young men, through a negative lens.
“We have to change perceptions so that [people] don’t view us as expendable. We have to let it be known that we’re valuable.”
Victoria Christopher Murray, 58, a best-selling national author whose latest novel is Never Say Never, echoed the sentiment that “all politics is local.”
Yet Murray, who splits her time between Los Angeles and D.C., expressed concern that in today’s contentious political climate, not enough is being done to serve the interests of African-American constituents locally or nationally.
“Once upon a time, Senators and members of Congress had to do their jobs and serve responsibly. Despite their political views, they thought of themselves first as Americans and represented all of us,” she said.
“Now with the gerrymandering of political districts, they don’t have to do that. It’s about the narrow interests of a few people. Politics has become theatrics.”
Murray, whose parents were active in the civil rights movement, praised previous generations for identifying key issues — i.e. ending segregation — but warned that the black community’s interests today are increasingly fractured.
“If you ask five Hispanic people what their top issue is, they will probably say immigration. If you ask a gay person, it’s marriage equality. But what are our issues in the black community?” said Murray. “Ask five people, and you’ll get different answers. We have assimilated and we’re part of America, but it’s not helping us identify priorities and solve our challenges.”