Baby Doc has returned to Haiti. He is the son of Papa Doc and called “Baby” because he succeeded his ruthlessly despotic father with equal venom at age 19. The prospect of Duvalier (his real name) recapturing power, adding political tyranny to crushing disaster and ambient misery, is frightening. But many who are too young or desperate to remember the hundreds of thousands killed by the dictators have welcomed him enthusiastically as a possible political answer to Haiti’s problems.
But when Baby Doc fled Haiti to exile in France in 1986, there was dancing in the streets. The nation was rid of the murderous family, and Haitians were free to develop and grow. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Haiti’s efforts at viability have been hobbled by nonexistent infrastructure, a primitive political environment, an underdeveloped leadership class, institutionalized corruption, stunting superstition, educational failure and global indifference.
Across the world, as in Haiti, the defeat of oppressive leadership is often seen as the dawn of a new day. But despotic leadership is, most often, merely a symptom of a sick society, condemned to recreate its oppression unless it sets about the urgent task of inner transformation.
There was dancing in the streets in 1865 after the abolition of slavery, dancing in the streets after successes of the Civil Rights Movement. There was even a little jig after the release of O.J. Simpson and outright jubilation after the election of Barack Obama, yet our inequities persist. Fifty years after King, we in Minnesota still have among the largest gaps in education, employment, imprisonment, teen pregnancies, STDs and home ownership between Blacks and Whites nationwide.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, has stated that there are more African Americans in jail, on probation, or otherwise engaged with the criminal justice system than there were slaves in 1850.
Carter G. Woodson, the great Black historian, wrote: “If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told; and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own; and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”
Our social inequities will persist unless we address both the front-door indifference and back-door acquiescence that have been hard wired into the American psyche.
We have fulfilled King’s prediction that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” Nor will it sprout spontaneously among strangling weeds of indifference. Justice is only normalized with unrelenting collaboration between the Have-nots and the Haves that identify with them.
King was neither poor nor uneducated. He was among the intellectual elite, middle class, educated, urbane and socially mobile. He chose to work for justice.
It is time for Black and all middle-class Americans to follow King. He risked his life working with the poor and at the time of his death was contemplating living among them. It is time for us to follow the example of Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, who works with the poor and did live in a low-income high rise in Newark for many years. A generation apart, they have shown us how we can make social transformation a perpetual struggle rather than a passing episode. Not everyone can move to a tough neighborhood but everyone can stay connected and work with those who do. No one is free until all are free.
If we simply strive for ourselves and our families and fail to seek the well-being of those left behind, we will keep losing ground until we find ourselves in the Haitian dilemma, facing the return of Baby Doc. Volunteer, mentor, tutor, give and if possible, move to North Minneapolis and serve.
Don Samuels is the Minneapolis Fifth Ward city council member. He welcomes reader responses to Don.Samuels@ci.minneapolis.mn.us.