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The 21st century is well underway but President Barack Obama’s re-election, notwithstanding, the problems facing Blacks today are as daunting as ever. The 2nd Inaugural Address is widely described as signaling an unapologetic liberal domestic agenda for his next term. However, while referring to us the standard bearer for groups seeking to attain full civil rights, African Americans were not on the president’s list --gays, Latino immigrants, seniors, environment protection—receiving, or in line to receive, special attention by this administration. (Predictably, silence has been Black leadership’s response to Obama’s not including African Americans.)
Continuing systemic barriers impede Blacks’ progress and the struggle for justice and equity likely would have had little success except for Blacks’ renowned resilience. But resilience is not enough, especially since Black leadership has become a mere shadow of its storied predecessors.
Ineffective, self-serving leadership and its cohort, disunity, render Blacks’ demands way short of meeting their needs. Moving from an individual- oriented to a group-oriented, moral and ethical leadership model is crucial for actual change. Successful collaborating with other groups must be from a position of strength not weakness. But Black leaders these days seem to lack the will and/or integrity to craft agendas that focus on the specific needs of Black people.
The moral and ethical agenda of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X has been discarded and as Black commentator Bruce Dixon intones, “Many Black leaders are unwilling or unable to defend the opportunities that made their emergence possible.” Emulating America’s individualism and materialism is contrary to Blacks’ interests. Yet, the Black community does not demand that its leaders employ strategies that relate first to constituents’ priorities nor does it regularly hold them accountable.
Also Blacks, mainly by their silence, leave many nagging questions unanswered. For example, poverty, Black violence, police abuse, unemployment and poor quality public education for Black children remain major problems, but what are the solutions? Most Black leaders tend not to tackle these problems; they have internalized America’s values but still have very limited access to its benefits. So their silence, and at times malfeasance, reinforces white privilege, i.e., on-going racism. Author Time Wise offered this comical but illuminating definition of white privilege four years ago: “When you can claim that being mayor of a small town and then governor of a sparsely populated state makes you ready to potentially be president, (Sarah Palin) and people don’t soil themselves with laughter, and being a Black U.S. senator and state senator and constitutional scholar means you’re untested.”
In Los Angeles and throughout America, the scenario is substantially the same: Schools continue to provide an inferior education for Black students, Black neighborhoods are often rife with poverty, an absence of hope-and weren’t Black home owners prime victims of the housing mortgage debacle? But judging from their failure to respond to these and many other challenges confronting Black constituents, far too many Black leaders apparently think such problems are insoluble and do little, if anything, to address them.
Perceptions of today’s Blacks and those in the 1960’s on political and economic issues are starkly different. Back then, the pervasive call was for freedom and justice. Today, civil rights violations are still common, but Black leaders have practically abandoned the fight, presumably because they are better off materially and can now afford more expensive cars and homes, etc. Many also act as though the absurdity that America is a post-racial society I factual. Blacks differ substantially, not just about remedies but these days, even on the definition and meaning of major issues. The differences are most glaring in the chasm between today’s middle class and poorer Blacks but the middle class’ absence from the continuing struggle for justice makes it even harder to navigate an already grossly uneven playing field.
The calming effect of Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation lulled many Blacks into believing the fight was over and they had “made it.” Of course never of one voice, including in the sixties, when necessary, Blacks worked together for the common good and persevered despite enormous obstacles.
Traditional civil rights organizations now depend heavily on corporate money. Their grassroots organizational efforts in the struggle to bring about a just society have been supplanted with a less constituent, more corporate emphasis. The NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SCLC are all shadows of their past relevance. (Even the annual NAACP Image Awards is more a nod to Oprah than Martin or Malcolm.)
About four years ago, the LA Urban League broadened its community outreach with a corporate funded “Neighborhoods Work” initiative. It is a comprehensive effort to improve conditions in a 70-block area in South Central Los Angeles, which includes Crenshaw High School. (The league recently withdrew from the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership, (GCEP). Focus areas include safety, education and economic development. (Last week’s Urban Perspective provided an update on the current quagmire at Crenshaw High caused by the Los Angeles Unified School District’s prolonged neglect of conditions and resources at the school.)
Leadership is the lynchpin of sustainable change. Unfortunately, Black leadership has been neither very effective nor accountable in recent years; a new group-oriented, moral and ethical leadership model is needed now more than ever. Although Black elected officials are most often singled out for criticism, Black leadership, in general, is culpable too and must also be held accountable.
Slavery’s poisonous tentacles still impede Blacks’ attempts to establish common ground and work together on a sustainable basis. And If Black leadership continues to simply emulate the white majority’s individualistic and materialistic leadership model, the naysayers will have been proven right and the future for Blacks is indeed bleak. A new morally and ethically grounded Black leadership model is crucial to debunk such fatalistic forecasts. Finally, new leadership models are critically important for charting courses that actually empower the people they purport to serve.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at