I have written previously that author Bertold Brecht wrote a play, originally titled “Life of Galileo,” which was based upon the eminent scientist. (Much to the annoyance of my children, repeating myself has become quite a habit as I age.) In one scene, Galileo’s assistant laments, “Unhappy (is) the land that has no heroes.” Galileo soberly responds, “No. Unhappy (is) the land that needs heroes.” The point is that people should not look to super humans to save them; salvation, if you will, is to be found in ordinary people who work to achieve extraordinary things — either singularly or in concert with others.
I raise this point as I reflect on the myriad conversations that I have had in which Black people in Indianapolis lament two major obstacles that they perceive. One is that our city appears to lack a leading African American philanthropist. The other is that there seems to be a general lack of cooperation and support among African Americans, especially when it comes to those who are doing well financially reaching out to those who are not. Many, including myself, have compared relations within our city’s Black community to the ostensible meccas of Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. (among others). Despite the fact that “perception is reality,” said reality might not be as accurate as we believe it to be.
Regarding the first perception, many of us hearken back to when a few Black men who (while standing on the shoulders of Madam C.J. Walker) were regarded as philanthropic heroes. The name that I most often hear in that context is that of the late Bill Mays, the legendary founder of Mays Chemical Company. Mr. Mays, who was a mentor to me and countless others, supported hundreds of nonprofit organizations, aspiring (and seasoned) entrepreneurs and individuals who were in need. (For example, he frequently paid the fee for young leaders to join 100 Black Men.) As far as I am aware, no one has stepped up in the way that Mr. Mays did, which is one of the reasons why he remains a hero to so many.
Regarding the second perception, research from SAVI found that Black unemployment in Indianapolis hovered above 10% from 2010 to 2019. Other studies show that the Black homeownership rate is less than 36% and that food insecurity is rampant. Finally, it should come as no surprise that, according to an Indiana GPS report, Indianapolis ranks 55th out of 85 metropolitan areas for Black business formation.
These and other statistics — including those regarding Black educational outcomes — suggest to many of us that Black folks simply don’t work together effectively enough to raise our collective standard of living. Indeed, the comprehensive research that the African American Coalition of Indianapolis (AACI) conducted last year found that there is a strong belief among lower income Blacks that their higher income counterparts don’t care about them. However, the reality is more complicated.
Even if one assumes that African Americans who are doing well financially should do more to help lift those who are lower income out of poverty, I would argue that our attention would be better spent focusing on dismantling systemic racism. In other words, Blacks did not erect the multiple socioeconomic barriers that we face in Indy and across the country; white people did. Therefore, it is not solely up to Black folks — wealthy, middle class or poor — to dismantle those systems. It is incumbent upon us as a race to push collectively for change, as well as work with whites who are genuine allies in our struggle. In short, looking to well-to-do Black folks to undo our problems is a losing strategy.
Fortunately, the AACI, as a collective and as individual organizations, is focused on dismantling systemic racism — and reaching out to those who have fewer economic and educational opportunities. Other nonprofits and businesses, including the African American Legacy Fund of Indianapolis, Sixty8 Capital and Equity 1821, are doing the same.
It is seductive to be lured into despair given the disproportionate socioeconomic, educational, health and other problems that still exist among African Americans. We must look to those who came before us, realizing that their obstacles were so much higher, their opportunities so much more limited and their very lives so much more threatened. Yet, they persevered. We dishonor our ancestors — and fail our children — when we don’t take up the mantle.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.