hashim-benford_web.jpgWe need jobs now!  

That pretty much sums up the state of economic affairs in black communities within South Florida and throughout the country. The need for jobs is not a new concept, and as a community we’ve been battling unemployment for decades.  The reality is this economic crisis has only made matters worse. Despite our need, though, opportunity has a tendency of skipping over our neighborhoods. So, what’s really the problem? 

Our people are clearly willing to work. We have the same desire as other communities to earn a good living, develop our skills and knowledge, and feel the sense of pride and self-accomplishment that comes with being employed. 

I’ve seen folks rip and run all over the city putting in applications, sending out resumes, going back to school, and getting additional training, all in an effort to be upstanding, employed citizens of society. So those misguided and outdated stereotypes of  “black laziness” certainly don’t apply. We carry within us a deep strength and resilience.  The lack of jobs in our communities is not by any means a reflection on us but solely represents an unequal system that must be shaken up if things are going to change.

The playing field is clearly not level.  Black communities in the United States are economically underdeveloped compared to white communities overall.  We are still dealing with the very real and damaging legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and the state-sanctioned terror of white supremacy. There have been some improvements. We can supposedly vote, for example, but there is still a long way to go.  

History has proven that change most frequently occurs as a direct result of people getting organized and taking action. It's through collective action that corporations are forced to change their practices and government is forced to expand rights, rewrite laws, and develop more equitable policies. The abolitionist movement of the 19th century pressured the government to take a stance against slavery.  In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement pushed the federal government to force desegregation even with staunch resistance from local racist institutions. 

With this latest recession, there is tremendous opportunity for government to step up and correct the historical economic injustices endured by black communities.   A golden example of this opportunity exists right here and right now in Liberty City.

Since 2004, Miami-Dade County has attempted to build a massive Transit Village right in the heart of Liberty City on Northwest 62 Street and 7th avenue. The initial plans for this project called for big-box stores and market-rate condos. However, residents and small businesses in the area fought back and demanded a mixed-use development that included affordable housing and commercial space with support for long-standing small businesses like Mop City Barber Shop and Greene Dream Shoe Repair, which has been a staple in the community for over 45 years.

Such a project has the potential to stimulate both immediate and long-term jobs, provide much-needed housing for low-income residents, and improve our transportation infrastructure.

But now, after stalling for several years, the plans are back up for debate and politicians (black and Hispanic) are balking on hard commitments to the community. While local community members demand guarantees for jobs, politicians sit back and simply offer us their “best efforts.”

Best efforts are not enough.  We can’t cash in good intentions. The only way to ensure that our communities benefit and prosper from every potential opportunity is to make concrete commitments.  That means requiring contractors and businesses to hire directly from within the community.  And yes, that would mean hiring with race in mind. 

We cannot continue doing business under the false pretense that we are all on equal footing. Black labor and the wealth created as a result were all stolen from our ancestors.  We must account for this legacy of theft and the generational impacts it continues to have on us today.

Inevitably, it is the responsibility of our elected officials, both black and non-black, to step up and represent the true values of justice. If government seriously wants to bring an end to racism, it must not only change its rhetoric but also, more importantly, change how the game is played.

We are at a critical moment in history. The legitimacy of government is under attack from racist, right-wing extremists. Our country is contending with the biggest economic crisis in generations. However, on the positive side, in the last presidential election, we demonstrated our capacity to make the unthinkable  a reality. Millions mobilized in the name of change.

If we are to solve the most pressing issues of our day, we must recognize that change is not defined by who we elect and the color of their skin. Change is defined by how committed we are to fairness in our communities and the legacy of creating a new brand of justice.

Hashim Yeomans-Benford is an organizer for the Miami Workers Center, a grassroots strategy and action center that works for racial and economic justice in Miami and beyond.