At first, President Barack Obama was largely an untouchable icon, above reproach. Increasingly, however, more Blacks began talking about the need for him to address their specific needs and concerns. But the talk skirted an equally important long-standing issue: The Black community’s failure to hold Black elected and other leaders accountable. Hasn’t pervasive self-serving, rather than group-oriented, leadership proven to be extremely hazardous for the Black community?
Many Blacks, perhaps most, initially considered challenging Obama’s decisions sacrilegious, and more than a few continued to regard him as an icon to be neither properly critiqued nor criticized. Although increasingly concerned with his decisions, Blacks also needed to be concerned about ineffective Black leadership in general, especially in light of the daunting challenges in the 21st century.
National Urban League President/CEO Marc Morial, hardly a firebrand, early on challenged President Barack Obama to deal specifically, and in more detail, with Black concerns. Professor Cornel West consistently urged Blacks to give informed “critical support” to the president. And other prominent figures, while supportive of the president, also insisted Black people have a right to advocate for specific Black interests. The same applies to Black leaders who often seem to forget that their primary responsibility should be to constituents and stakeholders.
Since the 1960s, the prevailing assumption has been that electing Blacks to political office would leads to an improved quality of life for Black people, in general. But this has turned out to be rather naïve. As Dr. Ron Daniels points out, “Simply replacing White faces with Black faces in old places did not, and does not, translate into social justice and social change.”
While many Black elected officials do honor their pledge to represent constituents’ interests, far too many continue to mirror the pervasive (White/European) leadership model based primarily on self-aggrandizement with little or no real commitment to use their office as a vehicle toward Black empowerment. As a result, the dictum, “Blacks should have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent interests” remains more rhetoric than reality. Clearly, self-serving leadership meets leaders’ needs first rather than the needs of those they are entrusted to serve.
Greater accountability and a need for Black strategic alternatives are closely related. However, since the civil rights era, efforts to build an overarching “Black agenda(s)” have not succeeded and the Black community’s fundamental needs and concerns have gone wanting. There’s some progress, such as a large increase in the number of Black elected officials, the size of the Black middle-class and greater access, albeit insufficient for greater access to better housing, employment, higher education, etc. (In each of these areas, Blacks remain on the bottom.) Further, inner cities remain killing grounds where violence among Blacks and other crimes often seem etched in the landscape. There, schools still do not educate Black children and justice remains scarcely an inch more than symbolic.
The preamble to the National Black Agenda adopted in Gary, Indiana in 1972 was the last best attempt at nationwide unity. It asserted, “Our cities are crime-haunted dying grounds. Huge sectors of our youth face permanent unemployment and neither the courts nor prisons contribute anything resembling justice or reformation… The schools are unwilling, or unable, to educate our children for the real world of our struggles.” Have things really changed?
In some respects, things are even worse today, damning testimony to both ongoing racism and a conditioned callous indifference to adverse conditions even among Blacks themselves. We are, in fact, complicit in our own oppression and the growing chasm between middle-class and poorer Blacks tends to aggravate an already strained relationship between them. Also, today, fewer and fewer Blacks are directly involved in concrete efforts for change, an ominous sign for what is arguably, an even a more challenging future.
Who should be held accountable for reversing current debilitating conditions for Black people? The question is seldom even addressed, let alone answered. For instance, far too many Blacks believed Obama’s presidency meant that problems, heretofore intractable, would be solved simply by his being in office. This, of course, was and is a pipe dream. Although Obama was a sea change from George W. Bush, even his staunchest supporters conceded he had no magic bullet and they realized that unless Blacks held “our” president and themselves accountable, they would continue to get very little from his Administration. Barack Obama was the president of the United States, not Black America, but he did not provide the attention and resources commensurate with our needs.
A general absence of Black leadership accountability in California is evident at both the state and local levels. For example, immigration, a huge issue that affects Blacks disproportionately and has major public policy and human rights implications, yet until recently it was not a priority for Black leadership, who said virtually nothing about it. Even in Los Angeles that may have more immigrants than any city in the nation, their collective silence is deafening.
Where are Black leadership’s strategic agendas for the Black community? Obviously, there is no single Black agenda to deal with on-going racism, new demographics, the global economy, schools’ continuing to fail Black students, etc. Yet, we still are not demanding effective, committed leadership that addresses these key issues. The ambivalence and silence of Black leaders and the Black community itself underscore the need for unity and greater accountability indispensable for our survival and future success.