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Black leadership heads the list of relentless challenges bombarding Black Americans. Unless leaders become more effective, however, responses to these growing challenges will remain fragmented, i.e., fundamentally dysfunctional. Greater intra group collaboration and unity are integral components of real change and keys to more relevant, progressive, political and economic strategies. Black leaders (at all levels) have generally failed to vigorously pursue constituents’ interests-nationwide or state and local levels. Leadership influences virtually all strata but Black leaders persist in emulating self-serving, individual-oriented leadership models that are neither designed nor intended to meet the needs of the Black population. (Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and post-Brown vs. Board of Education—each period reflects the nation’s racist priorities through laws, public policy and related leadership strategies.)
The question is how long will Blacks permit and suffer ineffective leadership as a normative response to continuing inequities and injustice? The answer requires taking into full account complex variables, including Blacks’ internalizing America’s values despite severely limited access to its benefits. During post-Reconstruction, middle class Black leadership defined the interests of the “Black community,” named themselves leaders and were welcomed and assumed to be so by whites. Then, as now, most benefits go to middle-class Blacks rather than those most in need.
Recent studies underscore the need for effective Black leadership: Crime data confirms Black adult and juvenile crime rates are substantially higher than other groups, Black and Latino drivers are searched by LAPD four times more often than whites or Asians, and only 38% of Blacks are found to be carrying illegal items compared with 55% of whites, 65% of Latinos and 54% of Asians. None of these findings are revelations.
In 2004, Los Angeles County Blacks had the lowest median income and were only 10% of the population, but constituted 30% of the homeless (now, an even greater percentage and were also most victimized by hate crimes. In addition, almost half of all Black high school students failed to graduate with their class in four years and not surprisingly, had the highest percentage of drop/push-outs. The premature death rate among Blacks was 40.6% per 100,000 population compared to 11% for Latinos, 4.5% for whites and 3.8% for Asians. Recent data confirms these findings, underscoring critical need for effective Black leadership.
Another issue requiring strong leadership is perennially problematic Black-Latino relations. Of course, this highly neglected issue pre-dates the recent surge of racially motivated gang violence and killings in Los Angeles. Recurrent tension and physical confrontations in communities and between Black and Latino students throughout local school districts indicate a need for new substantive approaches to the problem, as opposed to traditional, superficial strategies. The crisis-only involvement by Black leaders never reaches the underlying factors that shape the problem and continue to negatively impact both groups. In addition, continuing racist, fear laden behavior by LAPD and Sheriff’s Department contributes to overall poor police community relations contribute to the problem.
Black leaders rarely address mainstream or minority media’s propensity for sensationalism. And their indifference serves to absolve Black opportunists who are regularly fingered by the Los Angeles Times and mainstream electronic media to speak on behalf of the “community” even though most have no constituents and no legitimate standing in any Black community. These self-serving, so-called “community activists” rush to the TV cameras, reveling in specious sound bites. Their most egregious attribute, however, is exploiting the emotional scars and suffering of victims of violence and/or their families solicitous. And they do this with impunity.
California’s Legislative Black Caucus and Los Angeles Congressional Black delegation have been largely phantom-like on salient issues, seemingly oblivious to the generic connection between their responsibilities and emerging local issues. Happily, the state Legislative Black Caucus over the past year has shown signs of growth and unity. (Hopefully, Karen Bass’ elevation to Speaker of the Assembly portends an even more responsive, effective Legislative Black Caucus.)
There are no quick or easy answers for improving the effectiveness of Black leadership in general, but a collective time-out is needed to reassess dysfunctional strategies and to develop consensus around new, innovative methods. A decidedly more progressive approach inclusive of empowered community participants is critical. New leadership risk taking is needed to replace individualistic, self-serving methods proven to be inimical to Blacks best interests.
Increasingly complex issues demand renewed commitment, compassion and courage. Barack Obama notwithstanding, is Black leadership equal to the task? Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail