(First of two parts)
Given the nation’s reaffirming move to the right, the unprecedented obscene denigration of President Obama, and slippage in his iconic status among Blacks, effective Black leadership could be even more important than Obama’s re-election. Whatever the outcome in November, group-oriented, strong Black leadership is the key to recapturing the unity necessary for dealing with the complex challenges facing Blacks in the 21st century.
Today’s column, the first of two parts, revisits an earlier discussion of Black leadership in a paper I presented in April of last year at a UC Santa Barbara conference on “California Dreamin’.” The need to focus on leadership and the current state of Black America is not doom’s day rhetoric but a foreboding reality.
Things have gone from bad to worse and 21st century problems portend even greater challenges for the future. Yet, efforts to develop unity among Black people 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, most Blacks are reluctant to challenge the status quo.
In Los Angeles, as in other metropolitan areas, the plethora of pressing issues range from schools’ failure to teach Black children and racial profiling to excessive violence and pervasive poverty. The school district 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, are still struggling to survive the financial meltdown. And full employment and large-scale community development in Black areas remain essentially, pipe dreams.
(Heavily Latino SEIU 1877 was the reluctant incubator for launching a new Black security guards union-a notable exception, to the pernicious divide between Blacks and Latinos. But the overall employment picture for Blacks remains bleak and without a bona fide place at organized labor’s decision-making tables, the situation 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 living wage jobs.
Black and Latino leaders, when pressed, profess interest in working together, but rarely do so on a sustained basis. Also, Black leaders’ failure to work on issues of mutual concern with Latinos and other ethnic groups aggravates tenuous and, at times, volatile inter-group relations.
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 like parasites at high-profile media-covered incidents; some even 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. There was no such 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 single exception is 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 and Blacks fought such efforts with indomitable resilience. However, such resilience is juxtaposed to prolonged disunity-remnants of Willie Lynch. Nonetheless, Blacks’ 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 in law and custom, was designed to ensure Blacks’ subservient status. One of the most insidious legacies of slavery is self-hate, that is still prevalent, especially among Black youth. And despite irrefutable reasons for change, Black leaders typically display only temporary outrage. Examples abound of egregious civil and human right abuse by law enforcement, not only in notorious incidents like Rodney King and Oscar Grant, but countless lesser known but equally disturbing cases.
The growing chasm between middle-class and poorer Blacks, when just the opposite is needed, adds immeasurably to the difficulty in developing sufficient pressure to bring about actual change. Unfortunately, even the emergence of new race-laced extreme conservatism has not generated a collective strategic response from Black leadership. Their “collaboration and unity” are usually confined to rhetoric; having internalized the white majority’s values, they rarely really challenge them for fear of losing putative leadership status.
Challenges constantly collide, impeding Black progress in the 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, witness Black leadership continuing to operate as a mere specter of its proper role.
Ineffective, self-serving leadership and its cohort, disunity, have rendered Black people’s political strength far weaker than it should be. And moving from individual to group orientation is necessary to successfully collaborate with others, but even more important, to operate from positions of strength, not weakness. Black leaders generally seem to lack either the will or integrity to take risks necessary for meeting constituents’ needs. (Sadly, the ethical and moral leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are faint memories for many Blacks.) As commentator Bruce Dixon intones, “Many Black leaders are unwilling or unable to defend the opportunities that made their emergence possible.” Even though emulating America’s individualism and materialism is not in Blacks’ best interest, Black leaders do just that, and with impunity, because their constituents fail to hold them accountable.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.