Brown speaks on race

Applauded by a standing audience at the night’s end, civil rights activist Elaine Brown spoke candidly about the causes and consequences of racism in modern-day America last Monday.

The first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party, which she did in 1974, Brown has since advocated blacks’ freedom as an author, lecturer, and musician.

“We don’t even like to talk about black oppression,” she said of society in general.

Brown said that the black condition is important, however, because African-Americans are unique and oppressed. Certain issues, including viewing immigrants as people able to find better lives in America, can’t be resolved until black oppression is resolved.

“We have to see black people’s condition today from a larger perspective,” she said, noting the exceptional success of such stars as Oprah Winfrey and rap artist 50 Cent. “You’re not going to be Oprah.... You’re not going to be president.”

Elaine Brown has adapted to the post-1960s civil rights movement, noted Johanna Fernandez, a
post-doctoral fellow in the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) and a faculty member in the history department.

“In order for her to be a leader of the Black Panther Party, she had to be a woman of the moment,” she said.

Brown talked at length about Michael “Little B” Lewis, a 14-year-old tried for murder as an adult in Georgia in 1997. It is incidental that she believes he didn’t commit the crime, she said. The main point was that a 14-year-old boy was placed on trial as an adult.

In her book New Age Racism and the Condemnation of “Little B”, Brown tells Lewis’ story — a boy ignored by his community, misrepresented by the media, and convicted of a crime she doesn’t think he committed.

“What’s more interesting about Little B for me is not that he was charged for a crime and convicted,” Brown said. “The other piece was his life.”

According to Brown, blacks have the highest poverty rates, lowest employment rates, and lowest income rates. “We still have ghettos in America, don’t we? But we pretend that we don’t,” she said.

Brown used the term “New Age racism” to describe the attribution of blacks’ condition to a problem with blacks themselves, rather than with America. She claimed that in the 1920s, Columbia University sponsored an investigation into the existence of a supposed African-American criminal gene. “There’s no criminal gene,” she said. “This whole business is a myth.”

Brown also faulted American history for blacks’ current condition. “America is so powerful that you have to ask yourself: How did it happen?”

“The only crime that we could commit was trying to be free,” she said. “I would assert that America has become hell for millions of people.”

In addition to speaking at universities about racism and gender oppresion, Brown serves as a board member of the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform, according to Wisconsin Green Party News.

Turning to students, Brown hopes they act now and connect with one another to discuss racial issues. Fernandez agreed that students have lots of time and resources at their disposal. Their job is to understand social phenomena, and, historically, students have headed many social movements, she said.

“Students have a powerful moment,” Brown said. “This is your moment; you are the best; you hold the banner.”