Why a Written Covenant? Because Covenants are Powerful Tools!

For several years now it has become clear that the only way to fix the many problems that still plague the African American demographic is via a covenant movement -- a new movement of solidarity involving all African American people across the country.  The problems we face are too diverse and too deep for siloed and uncoordinated approaches. No, what is needed is coordinated, collective, pragmatic action, though action carried out locally, not by some new top-down organization.

In a paper presented by Dr. McClean in Paris in 2015, at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, he explained why a written covenant is important if we are to see real change in the data concerning the African American demographic, as long as it is  combined with a data-driven, target-date, and goals-oriented approach.  Here is some of what he said:

Covenants quicken. Covenants create new narratives and new mythic self-descriptions, and covenants generate ways where once no way was detected because their very existence generates soul-force, thereby generating social optimism and a new and empowering aesthetic of the self and community.

Daniel Elazar [a noted scholar of covenants and compacts, both religious and secular] defines covenant in this way:

A covenant is a morally informed agreement or pact based upon voluntary consent, established by mutual oaths or promises, involving or witnessed by some transcendent higher authority, between peoples or parties having independent status, equal in connection with the purposes of the pact, that provides for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends (limited or comprehensive) under conditions of mutual respect, which protect the individual integrities of all the parties to it. Every covenant involves consenting (in both senses of thinking together and agreeing) and promising. Most are meant to be of unlimited duration, if not perpetual. Covenants can bind any number of partners for a variety of purposes but in their essences they are political in that their bonds are used principally to establish bodies political and social.  (Covenant & Polity in Biblical Israel. Biblical Foundations & Jewish Expressions: Volume I of the Covenant Tradition in Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005, pp. 22-23.)

Covenants are public oaths, and as such they have serious psychological power. They create what are called "meta-norms" (which guide behavior even in the face of obstacles and temptations), "triggers" (which remind us who we are in the face of attempts to define us negatively), "frames" (for decision making in the long-term), and they serve as "nudging devices" (which serve to keep our minds and actions on the tracks that we set them). Put succinctly, they remind us of our greatest allegiances and commitments, and help us to make decisions in line with them. So covenants can be powerful tools indeed. As mentioned in the FAQs, the journalist-activist Tavis Smiley has also focused on the utility of the idea of covenant, and he edited  two anthologies explicitly around the notion of "a covenant with black America." Smiley also edited another book, The Covenant in Action, which explores the efforts of people across the country to make a reality the required work outlined in his first book on covenant. (We recommend these books to you.)

The essays in Smiley’s first book address various problems within the African American demographic, and those essays do a very good job at explication. Yet, the book does not contain any actual written covenant statement. In the final pages of the book, the activist and philosopher Cornel West, in a brief, three page closing titled “Call to Action,” actually seems to move away from the notion that such a statement is useful or needed. He writes:

Our Covenant is neither a contract nor a compact. A contract is too selfish and a compact is too seasonal. Now is the time for us to keep faith with our spiritual, moral, and political covenant bequeathed to us by great foremothers and forefathers that simply says: “Stand with grace and dignity and take action with courage and compassion, with malice toward none yet righteous indignation against injustice so that everyday people – and especially their precious children—can flower and flourish as the sun shines and the stars shout with joy.”

West’s language beams with sublimity and spirit, but it is a benediction, not practical guidance. The problem is that there are no useful guides to action or a deft formula for success. While the book is filled with concrete recommendations there appears to me to be a lack of a responsible, coordinating and regulative mechanism to carry them out (and neither does the companion web site have these, though it is useful). Beyond this, the book does not contain specific goals or timetables. For example, there is no timetable for the reduction of black poverty rates or to increase black high school and college graduation rates to specific target levels by a specific date. Of course, Smiley deems desirable such reduction and increase, respectively, as well all do, but there are no set numerical targets for the whole demographic to work toward, such as, for example, those of the well-known Millennium Development Goals (or “MDGs”) set forth and vigorously pursued by the United Nations (as responsible, coordinating and regulative mechanism). Those development goals were part of a detailed plan to improve the lives of the poor and of women and girls in developing countries, and was driven by good data that were the result of vigorous efforts on the part of some 28 international or multinational organizations.

In terms of meeting its primary goals of poverty reduction, the MDGs were wildly successful. That's because the UN coordinated the efforts of many organizations and people, while it itself served as a hub and clearinghouse for those various efforts -- conveying information, passing on progress reports, conveying data, maintaining public awareness of the problems, and keeping all focused on the goal.

We have tried other approaches in the African American demographic/community. They have been only partially successful. Sadly, since Tavis Smiley's first book, things have only gotten worse, which he himself readily states in his most recent book. We think that's because a covenant without a covenant isn't one,  because calling for change isn't sufficient to bring about change, and because a goal without a plan or mechanism for achieving it is no more than a plan to fail.

We're not saying that we have all the answers. What we do know is that unless and until the vast energy and resources of the African American demographic in its totality are tapped and mobilized, the sad stories and sad data that we have paraded before us day after day won't change. And that we cannot permit.