State shutdown should inspire us to rise up, not give up

”Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you had told me a year ago that our government would slam its doors in the face of its hungry children and neighbors standing on its front mat ringing the bell, waiting for the promised dinner, I would have thought it laughable. I was wrong!

And although an agreement that continues to borrow on our future and imperil K-12 education has been reached between the governor and Republican leaders, we must ask ourselves, “Now what? Where do we go from here?”

There are two big considerations for us. First, with African American students learning the least in our classrooms, how is it that cuts to education make up the bandage we are putting on our state’s budget wounds?

In light of this, it is possible that the achievement gap will widen unabated and more of our children will be destined to impoverished adulthoods. And it is also possible that more of our people, who already mistrust government, will hunker down into a tight huddle of intensified cynicism and apathy.  If they didn’t feel their vote mattered before, now they could be smugly convinced, causing an even greater retreat from the electoral process in our city and state.

Could the shutdown actually cause the African American voting record in North Minneapolis to worsen, particularly across economic lines? In the 2009 elections, for example, while the citywide turnout was 30.2 percent, some precincts in my neighborhood saw turnout as low as 8.2 percent.

In addition, studies show that whereas 79 percent of Americans with college degrees (and therefore higher incomes) vote, only 38 percent of Americans without a high school diploma do. And when you mix the combustible chemicals made of a “lost trust in government” with the chemicals in concentrated poverty, you get a potent explosive set to detonate in the heart of our urban core.

With the reverberations of the government’s actions yet unrealized, I think the time has come for African Americans everywhere to step boldly into our prophetic calling to lead this nation and state into a new era where we really have a government for the people, with the people and by the people — a leadership that establishes justice and well-being for all.

But first we have to understand the great leading role we have played and continue to play on the stage of American history and her evolving national drama.

To begin, we must now thoroughly live from the belief that America is our country and Minnesota is our state. I have come to understand that, along with all citizens, this country belongs to my descendants and me. The election of our first Black president didn’t hurt but instead solidified this ethos for me. (I actually flew a flag this July 4th.)

If this country is embraced by any group (notwithstanding Native Americans), it should be us. After all, it was our grandparents who built this country with their blood, tears and sweat and for free. In fact, next time you visit great monuments and buildings throughout our country, thank our people for them.

The fact is, America’s great economy was established on our free labor, and her wars have been — and still are — fought disproportionately by Black and Brown men (and women) who honorably served their country only to return home where their liberties were — and still are — tenuous at best.

But I do not attend the camp called “America owes us.” I hold two truths as self-evident: America has taken a great deal from African Americans, which we allowed because, as Martin Luther King aptly stated, ”Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

What is also true is that America has given us a lot. For African Americans in my peer group, well educated and gainfully employed, we are doing well. Although things are actually becoming more challenging, especially for low-income, undereducated African Americans, we still have more liberties and advantages here than we would have in almost any other country to actually transform the status quo. We do have the power and the calling to change this state and country.

With a view of what is possible for our state, let us ask the question the late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. challenged us to ask regarding our country, words that compelled me to join the Peace Corps over 20 years ago: “Ask not what your state can do for you, but what you can do for your state.”

It is time for us to rise up and fulfill our calling by reaching out to elected officials constantly with our plan and vision for our children and our community, as well as our expectations of them.

Email them, call them, visit them, and then hold them accountable during the next election. Let’s lead the way by voting in record numbers and then helping others in our community to view our government’s shutdown as a reason to vote instead of an excuse not to. Our time has come.

Sondra Samuels welcomes reader responses to sondra@citypeace.org.