Last month I took a visit to Atlanta and once again stopped by the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I reached back into the life of Dr. King to understand what made him great, and what we must do to continue the extraordinary work that he and his colleagues began so many years ago. As I sat on his porch, I closed my eyes and imagined his mother carrying him to the front door. I wondered how many Sundays the family sat on that same porch after dinner, and how many days Dr. King spent wondering if it might be possible for him to fulfill his dreams and personal ambitions.
I also thought about integration. I carefully studied the old pictures of Auburn Street, where Dr. King was born. I saw images of proud black business owners, in their finest clothes, driving fancy cars. Of course not everyone was doing well, but we were certainly better at making our own money. I read about how Martin Luther King Sr., Dr. King's father, maintained a disciplined household, where education was the highest priority and protecting the family unit was paramount.
Most importantly, I walked away convinced that one of the most valuable things that Dr. King's father gave him was pride. Martin Luther King Sr. taught his son at an early age that inequality was entirely unacceptable, and that the terms of integration should be such that you are able to engage in fair trade without allowing yourself to be subjugated.
So, years later, we have achieved at least half of Dr. King's dream of integration: We can shop where we want, eat where we want and get almost any job at the big fancy corporation down the street. Many of us earn more money than we could have in a segregated society and are given opportunities that are more consistent with our chosen skill sets.
The problem for our community, I humbly submit, is that we did not properly negotiate the terms of our integration. The pride that Dr. King's father instilled in him is lost for millions of youth who are being educated by people who don't care about them. Integration, for the most part, was simply prolonged assimilation, like moving into someone else's home and giving up the keys to your own. You are happy to be moving into a bigger house, but soon realize that you can't go into someone else's house and move around the furniture. Also, while you're renting a room, they are paying the mortgage, which means that their kids (not yours) are going to own the house when all the hard work is done.
Many of us see the golden carrot of a higher salary without understanding the risk that is inherent in allowing your family to depend on the descendants of your historical oppressors. Even the most educated among us are raised to sell our services to bidders who extract our best and brightest like oil being lifted from the soil of Nigeria. People with six figure jobs are living paycheck-to-paycheck, further heightening the economic dependency that makes you impotent when it's time to stand up for your rights. Like an intelligent woman who marries a wealthy man, you must ensure that you still have something to hold onto in the event that your relationship turns into an abusive one. Sadly, however, many of us have thrown economic caution to the wind.
I argue that integration didn't work in our favor because there is a difference between giving up a portion of your economic sovereignty in exchange for a true partnership vs giving up nearly everything to allow yourself to become an occupied state.
For example, if I were to give up my business and "integrate" myself into the management of a large company, I would probably be a very different (and more highly paid) man from the one you are hearing from right now. In fact, I'd probably be speaking a different political language altogether because few majority white institutions would allow me to speak the way I do in public (just ask Syracuse University, where I put my academic freedom to the test).
So, the conclusion is not that integration is always a bad thing. Integration can be a wonderful thing, since white Americans have hoarded most of the nation's resources (due to our oppression), and integrating gives us an opportunity to have a piece of the American pie.
But integrating in such a way that makes you dependent on others can put your socio-economic security at risk.
(Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. For more information, visit www.BoyceWatkins.com.)