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(The following paper was presented last April at a UC Santa Barbara conference: California Dreamin': Social Vision and The Crisis of California's African American Communities)
First of two parts
Things have gone from bad to worse. Twenty-first century problems portend even greater challenges for the future, yet efforts to develop sustainable unity among Black people in general, and Black leadership in particular, are distressingly lacking.
One reason Blacks have trouble developing consensus on vital issues is their leaders' unwillingness to set aside self- serving priorities and embrace group-oriented strategies: Having internalized America's values without full access to its political and economic benefits, many Blacks are reluctant to challenge the status quo.
In Los Angeles, as in other metropolitan areas, a plethora of pressing issues range from schools' failure to teach Black children and racial profiling, to excessive violence and pervasive poverty. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) continues to fail Black students but Black educators and other Black leadership remain conspicuously silent. Other pressing issues include Black businesses that more than most, struggle to survive the financial meltdown while full employment and large-scale community development remain pipe dreams, especially in the grossly neglected inner cities. Further, African American leaders tend to skirt the thorny issue of immigration that remains mired in distrust but has the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration between Blacks and Latinos.
(Heavily Latino Local SEIU 1877 was the (reluctant?) incubator for launching a new Black security officers union and the L.A. County Federation of Labor has supported efforts to increase Black union membership locally. Still, as elsewhere, the overall employment picture remains bleak, and without a bona fide place at organized labor's decision-making tables, the situation for Blacks will not change appreciably. The fledgling Black Workers Center in Los Angeles deserves support as a potentially strong conduit for recruiting and helping to place Black workers in "green jobs.")
Black and Latino leaders, when pressed, profess interest in working together but have rarely done so on a sustained basis. And Black leaders' failure to work on issues of mutual concern with Latinos, and other groups, aggravates tenuous, and at times volatile intergroup relations.
Also, Blacks' failure to hold its leaders accountable has spawned a host of self-serving charlatans. Many are "ambulance chasers" and "pay-for-view civil rights activists" who surface as parasites at high-profile media incidents. Some of these are pawns of mainstream media and address their own, not the community's interests; some even seem to specialize in exploiting the emotions of victims of violence and/or their families. Occasionally, these frauds even endanger lives, which happened when a self-anointed "negotiator" claimed to have brokered a gang truce in Los Angeles. It turned out there was no truce and a young Black man was shot as a result of the bogus claim. .
To better understand the barriers and potential solutions for improving Black leadership, historical antecedents must be taken into account. Blacks' oppression in this country is without parallel-the exception being the virtual annihilation of Native Americans' culture. The impact of the brutal treatment of African slaves and calculated systemic efforts to wipe out their culture is scarcely noted (or understood) outside of the Black community. Slave masters intended to strip slaves of every vestige of positive human attributes, e.g., family, language, history and culture-all designed to seal permanent subservience. Blacks fought such efforts with indomitable resilience but ironically, Black resilience is juxtaposed to an apparent propensity for disunity-shades of Willie Lynch. Nonetheless, Blacks' endemic ability to rebound in the face of enormous obstacles stems from an ancient sense of community, common values, shared responsibility and respect- all the antithesis of America's individualism and materialism.
Psychological conditioning, codified by both law and custom, was designed to ensure Blacks' sub-white status. One of the most insidious legacies of slavery is self-hate which is still prevalent, especially among Black youth. And despite irrefutable reasons for needed change, Black leaders typically display only temporary outrage. Examples abound, including egregious civil and human rights abuse by law enforcement in cases such as Rodney King (Los Angeles), Donovan Jackson (Inglewood), and more recently, Oscar Grant (Oakland) and Black leadership's silence on the failure of public schools to educate Black students.
The growing chasm between middle-class and poorer Blacks- when just the opposite is needed-adds immeasurably to the difficulty in achieving political clout, i.e., marshalling sufficient pressure to bring about actual change. Unfortunately, even the threatening emergence of a new race-laced extreme conservatism has not generated a collective, sustained strategic response from Black leadership. The Tea Party movement, coupled with continuing systemic inequities underscore a need for effective, across- the- board Black leadership. But "collaboration" and "unity" are largely confined to rhetoric among Black leaders who, having internalized the white majority's values, rarely challenge those values for fear of losing their putative leadership status.
Challenges constantly collide and collude, impeding Black progress in a seemingly endless struggle for justice. Continuous formidable barriers would have proven fatal long ago but for Blacks' storied resilience. However, resilience alone is not sufficient and Black leadership continues to operate as a mere specter of its proper role and real potential.
Ineffective, self-serving leadership and its cohort, disunity, have rendered Black people's political strength far weaker than it should be. Moreover, moving from an individual to a group-orientation is necessary, not only to successfully collaborate with others, but even more important, to operate from positions of strength, not weakness. Black leaders too often seem to lack either the will, or integrity to take risks necessary for meeting constituents' needs. The ethical, moral and political agendas of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, for example, are largely faint memories. As 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 not in our best interests, but in general, our leaders do just that with impunity because we fail to hold them accountable.
Larry Aubry e-mail: