In the wake of killings of black Americans by police agencies across the United States blacks politicians and leaders of organizations attempted to devise responsible tactics and strategies to these brutal slayings without much luck. Some of these strategies include the need for greater emphasis on economic programs, strengthening of Federal oversight, and even the introduction of body cameras and other forms of technology that may deter renegade police officers. While activists like Reverend Al Sharpton have kept up pressure on police agencies no coherent plan of action has materialized and it appears that police intransigence has stiffened.
So why have the collective tactics and efforts of Civil Rights veterans Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson or the vast number of actions such as #brunchouts, student led marches, sit-ins, bridge takeovers largely failed to bring about any type of consensus or even coherent strategy to end police brutality? Why have the calls for a new civil rights movement and the introduction of economic programs failed to excite the public, in particular black America into a viably coherent and sustained social movement?
The fundamental problem I argue is that America does not suffer from a dearth of civil rights legislation, lack of leadership nor even the lack of economic programs, although the later is always welcome. What is missing is a coherent mythology that will guide African Americans, and in particular black youth through the maze of obstacles that are a by- product of American individual and institutional racism. My argument does not negate the injustice of police brutality but I believe will go along way in re-aligning the black communities relationship with American society in general, which in turn may offer the means by which collective action may be mobilized. It may also help to assist the community in devising tactics necessary for a broader strategy to reduce black on black violence, police brutality, increase college graduation rates, erase economic disparities and general African American social expectations.
In 1982 William H. McNeil’s article “The Care and Repair of Public Myth” appeared in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine. McNeil’s article was a stunning work of cultural and political theory that largely went unnoticed by black America. McNeil’s thesis was simple: “in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain.” In other words societies or people without a coherent mythology will soon find themselves in trouble. Whether these are societies in whole or groups within societies, a coherent mythology provides the necessary psychological base for collective social action.
What McNeil meant by mythology is not what the average person has come to understand about them. A myth is not something that is untrue. This is and has been a drastic misunderstanding of the term. A mythology as defined by McNeil is a “Statement about the world and its parts particularly nations and other human in-groups that are believed to be true and acted upon whenever circumstances suggest or common response required.” In short a mythology is mankind’s substitute for instinct. It is the unique way in which human beings act collectively and at times individually. Without a coherent public mythology collective social action is impossible. At this very moment African Americans are caught between belief in the mythology of free enterprise in the guise of democratic capitalism and the mythology of America’s inability to provide the benefits of American citizenship fairly and equitably. This includes equality before the law-one of the hallmarks and privileges of a stable modern democracy. In many ways African Americans believe the United States still remains an inherently racist and unjust society. These two opposing beliefs or mythologies cripple coherent public action.
Africans brought to American came with diverse religious, cultural and political mythologies and over the course of time were forced to become a people, an in-group with a set of cultural, linguistic and historical characteristics and shared values. In short, Black Americans became a nation within a nation. Throughout its history black Americans forged consensus around a set of cultural mythologies. For example, Ethiopianism, a belief in the redemption and value of Africa as a source of cultural pride was the primary mythology through the mid 19th century that blacks used to barricade themselves from demeaning stereotypes of African inferiority.
Self-Help or Black Up Lift replaced Ethiopianism with the ascendency of Booker T. Washington the so-called leader of Black America. Washington’s form of Self-Help became the mythology that blacks used to build black communities, educate scholars and professionals in the continuous wake of institutionalized and individual white racism. Self Help’s replacement of Ethiopianism as a guiding mythology was logical as space and time began to distance blacks from their continental roots. And at the same time the belief in the values of individual economic free enterprise wrapped in the gospel the Self Made Man became the mainstream American mythology. Washington didn’t create the mythology of black uplift he merely re-articulated what was largely an old Puritan mythology re-cast in 19th century America as the idea of the gospel of wealth or what some might call the prosperity gospel. Washington’s political machine worked to inspire generations of blacks to commit themselves faithfully as a race to a program that relied on individual habits of patience, thrift, cleanliness, honestly and hard work. This became the basis of black collective social action. Collectively, 19th century African Americans believed that hard work would ultimately lead toward equality.
As the impediments and limits of the Self-Made man became evident the subsequent 20th century Civil Rights movement relied on the accepted mythology of equal citizenship as a means to rally African Americans toward the destruction of segregation and the racist class structure that placed blacks in subservient positions of obedience to whites. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not start the civil rights movement, nor did he invent non-violence as a tactic. But what he did was reshape and articulate new ideas and pushed the nation and black America in particular toward a new state of what was right, proper and possible.
With the rise the 1960’s Black Power movement militant black youth and many critics of white education rejected the mythology of non-violent action in the march for civil rights. Young African Americans shuttered the American mythology that stressed American self-sufficiency for a complete re-ordering of American society that depended upon the destruction of American capitalism-an economic system that seemed beyond the grasp of so many within the ghettos of America. The Black power movement came to stress white racism would always be a constant obstacle to black economic and social progress and came to believe a form of “separatism,” a complete rejection of white society and move toward the creation of separate black societies was as the only logical path toward collective social action. Blacks, power activists, with good reason, could not rely on the American mythology of hard work nor equality before the law as reliable mythologies for advancement. However, with the continued criticism and discrediting of Booker T. Washington’s program of Self-Help and King’s non-violent tactic young African Americans found themselves floundering for lack of a guiding mythology. We see this born out in low college graduation rates, mass incarcerations, black on black crime, low voter turn-out, single family homes, and a host of other economic, social, cultural, political indices.
So where are we today? McNeil’ warned that discrediting old myths without finding new replacements erodes the basis for common action. Today, blacks have no means for building consensus because no single guiding mythology exists for blacks Americans to rally. There is schism in the body social. What do we say to young black males that see President Barack Obama as a black male role model while racist cops gun down other black males with impunity? I argue that the black writers, artists and intellectuals must consider the necessity of creating new mythologies that can sustain black life and bring a sense of clarity and purpose to a people that find themselves facing these two warring disjunctures.
There is no sense in pretending that old wine in new caskets is what is needed. Marches, demonstrations, economic programs have all had their day. There is no sense in getting around the fact that these tactics have all lost their luster and fail to acknowledge that humans have always been and will continue to be a diverse collection of hunting bands prone to violence. However, a viable mythology that recognizes and takes seriously the concept that black lives matter is the only sincere method to build a future where the mythology of “protect and serve” applies equally to all Americans citizens and will assist in making police violence against the black community as common as it is within the white community.
What we need and sorely lack is a new leader with a vision of both past and future that millions will find compelling as to make them wiling and eager to join in common action to achieve a newly articulated goal. In short, we sorely need a new mythology.