MAXWELL:  Forget federal aid, try self-help

2/25/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Good riddance.

I am referring, of course, to the Federal Interagency Task Force that came to south St. Petersburg following the riots of 1996.

Now, having faced the hard reality of a brand of paralysis that grips many black neighborhoods in the South, that same task force is, in the words of Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, “stealthily creeping out of town.”

If you recall, then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros swaggered around after the riots _ hand-picked local radicals in tow _ breathlessly condemning St. Petersburg as “one of the most racially polarized communities in the country.”

Apparently glad to have some real-world action outside the Beltway, Cisneros, along with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, made naive promises and committed the federal government to a pipe dream.

Remember that mythic $20-million that popped up like a jack-in-the-box during a public meeting? How about those plans to transform the south side, essentially a bedroom community, into a bustling business district? And all that big talk of new single-family housing?

Much of that Babel and many of those schemes are sinking under the weight of their own fancifulness, and the federal task force is high-tailing it.

From the beginning, I never thought that local folks should pin their hopes for a better future on federal largess, often the bane of self-sufficiency. Cisneros and others were false prophets, causing gullible locals _ from City Hall to Bartlett Park _ to believe that their problems could be solved by outsiders.

In a recent St. Petersburg Times column, Doug Tuthill, a planner with the University of South Florida Urban Initiative, wrote that, before his panel could get down to work, the members had to overcome what he aptly calls “the politics of dependency.”

After the $20-million was announced, the major players became crabs in a bucket. Tuthill writes: “People stopped thinking about how to help the community and started thinking about how they could get their hands on the money. Splits in the black community occurred as leaders formed competing organizations to vie for the power to control the federal funds.”

The politics of dependency has ruined south St. Petersburg and will continue to do so until we wean ourselves of it. The thing that makes such politics more destructive is its evil companion: the don’t-give-a-damn syndrome. It afflicts far too many of us.

Let me explain: A big misconception about the black community is that few of us have the money to start up businesses or to build community centers as an investment in our children. The truth is that huge volumes of capital circulate in south St. Petersburg. Come with me any night, and I will show you tens of thousands of dollars changing hands.

The problem is that 95 percent of this money is spent on self-destructive vice and other meaningless self-gratification, clear indications of not giving a damn about the community.

Another example of not giving a damn can be found among successful black merchants and other professionals. Some rake in huge profits, but they fail to do anything to help others. They do not provide even minimum wage jobs. You can spot these owners in the Bahamas or other vacation spots spending away.

I am reminded of my hometown, Fort Lauderdale, where Jamaicans, Bahamians, Haitians and others bond, raise capital and establish successful enterprises. They do not wait for the federal government or even the banks. They reach down inside themselves. They trust and depend on one another, looking to the future, building an economic base that will benefit their children and grandchildren.

I look around St. Petersburg’s black neighborhoods and see Asians, Arabs and others buying businesses and establishing others from scratch. Many of these people operate initially on a shoestring.

Their secret? They work together. They care about one another. They are doing exactly what African-Americans here should be doing.

Do not tell me about our lack of capital. I do not buy that lie. Somehow, St. Petersburg’s black community must internalize a deep, active sense of self-help and cooperation. Ironically, now that the federal task force is finking out, perhaps we local blacks will be forced to rely on our own considerable talents and abilities.

The bottom line is that neither Mayor David Fischer nor Washington can save us.

We must save ourselves.