Is ‘Justified Anger’ ready to be a leading voice on black economic development?

I was recently invited to participate in the “Justified Anger and Economic Development Committee.” While researching the Justified Anger Coalition, I glimpsed the machinery behind the organization’s operations. What I saw raised some questions about the politics of Justified Anger. These are my personal observations.

On supply and demand

Our newspapers have a curious economic relationship with Greater Madison’s black communities. In the wake of the groundbreaking Race to Equity Report, readers began demanding more stories on black economics. Consequently, in 2014, our newspapers began publishing more of them. Simple supply and demand economics, right? Not quite.

One of the most effective cost-cutting mechanisms for local publications is the outsourcing of content. The amorphous yet ubiquitous Justified Anger Coalition has emerged as our newspapers’ preferred wholesaler of content on black economics. Since the Justified Anger Coalition has cornered the market, it effectively functions as a monopoly. With such a substantial market share comes great power and great responsibility.

On business organization

According to a corporate records search of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions’ website, Justified Anger does not appear to have a formal business organization. But according to an online summary of the group, one of its purposes is to “create a coalition that would empower the Black community to define its own solutions.”

The summary further states that one of the coalition’s focus areas is economic development. In particular, the coalition seeks “to lead and advocate for policies, practices and innovations that result in family sustaining employment, entrepreneurship, and business development in the African-American community.”

As far as mission statements go, it’s hard to argue that the Justified Anger Coalition is not spot on with respect to the fundamental need to eradicate racial economic disparities in Greater Madison. However, things get a little sticky when you begin to parse the public commentary (and private behavior) concerning Justified Anger’s vision for how to get to the metaphorical mountaintop.

It appears as if the current blueprint does not envision full diversity across the cultural and economic spectrums of black communities within Madison. This has led me to question whether certain voices within black communities will (consciously or unconsciously) go unrepresented in the Justified Anger movement.

On barriers to entry

Discussions about power and privilege can be a double-edged sword, especially when analyzed through the narrow lens of black vs. white. Yes, if you compare the relative allocation of power and privilege (between blacks and whites) in Madison, the average white person is better off than the average black person. However, refusing to analyze relative power and privilege within black communities will only exacerbate the racial disparities faced by blacks in Greater Madison.

Is Justified Anger’s intermediate vision to establish a prominent black bourgeois class that will (in the long term) empower a black underclass through trickle-down economics? Or does Justified Anger have a plan for economic development that does not require the most disenfranchised blacks to continue to wait while a black middle-class buffer is established?

In a Dec. 17 editorial, Alex Gee articulates a vision for Justified Anger to create a set of favorable socioeconomic conditions for black communities in Madison. The vision includes “a new table, one at which African-Americans were seated at the head, enjoying the liberty of setting that table, choosing the china, deciding the menu, hiring the cook and inviting the guests we want to eat with. This is beginning to happen, much to my great surprise and pleasure.”

Although part of Gee’s vision is simply a desire for the black community to gain a greater share of power and privilege, it is hard to ignore the potential for making racial disparities worse. We need to carefully examine what subset of African-Americans have an ownership stake in this house/dining room, and whether certain African-Americans might be considered uninvited guests to this soiree.  

As I indicated in my previous blog post, dealing with racial disparities in Greater Madison does not usually come down to racial animus toward black communities. The real challenge is overcoming the social constructs that create systemic barriers to the accumulation of social capital.

Likewise, within the current structure of black power and privilege in Madison, it is critical to identify and confront the social constructs that create division and disparity among black individuals, families, and communities. If we do not address this inconvenient truth (that even black folks can discriminate against each other and self-segregate), then the Justified Anger movement might perpetuate a black caste system instead of economically uplifting the core subjects of the Race to Equity report.



On respectability politics

So who are these potential uninvited guests? Although it is unclear whether the information contained on the website represents the official policies or practices of the Justified Anger coalition, it does raise questions about the inclusiveness of the black voices represented by the coalition.

First and foremost, it is difficult to ignore the coalition’s preference for faith-based people and institutions. In particular, the coalition’s brand and leadership structure heavily favors predominantly black Christian institutions. As a result, other faith-based people and institutions (e.g., Muslims, Buddhists, etc.), as well as people who are not religious or do not identify with a particular religion, could be excluded.

Although it is considered taboo to talk about it in public, black Christians in Madison are often discouraged from socializing with black Christians from other, competing congregations. These real divisions lead me to question just how deep the orthodoxy runs and how likely it is that black folks who subscribe to different belief systems and practices will be marginalized.

Aside from the potential faith-based biases, the information referenced on raises questions about the coalition’s stance on the empowerment of perhaps the most marginalized group of black Madisonians — those who identify as members of LBGT communities. As one of its featured news stories, links to a blog by David Blaska in which the author presents his views on gay marriage. While Blaska’s blog seems disjointed (it is unclear whether or how his views on gay marriage relate to the subsections contained within the blog), it does lead one to question what Justified Anger’s stance is on the topic, and whether black LGBT communities are invited to the dining table.

On branding and leadership

In case you were wondering, my interaction with the representative from the Justified Anger and Economic Development Committee made me feel as if I might be one of those uninvited guests. While researching Justified Anger, I asked about the mission, vision, and philosophies driving the coalition. As an anti-discrimination lawyer, I cannot be associated with institutions that (consciously or unconsciously) exclude people because of their identity or identity-based advocacy.

Apparently, because I had the audacity to (privately) ask about the inclusiveness and diversity of the coalition’s vision, the representative went incommunicado and passively disinvited me from the discussion table.

To be perfectly clear, the purpose of this blog post is not to sow seeds of discontent or to damage the Justified Anger brand. However, if Justified Anger seeks to become the representative voice for black economic development, then the coalition has a duty to listen to every black voice — even voices that do not necessarily conform to the prevailing ideologies that govern the coalition.

As a young black Madison resident operating in the private sector who does advocacy work on behalf of LGBT communities, I want to know whether the coalition considers and accepts me and the people I represent.

If Justified Anger wants to be the leading voice on black economic development in Madison, it must accept the burden of representing those who do not gravitate toward (or thrive within) their social circles. Or maybe we should simply place a moratorium on using the “black leader” label, as it belies the forces of power, privilege, and discrimination that define social capital within our black communities.

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