Blacks’ political future in Los Angeles and throughout the nation remains uncertain. However, to ensure a more certain and positive future, political and otherwise, means the Black community and its leadership, especially, must change their mindsets, priorities and most important, their behavior. Over a long period of time, having internalized values that do not serve their own interests, such changes represent a tremendous challenge. I recently came across an old newspaper article that illustrates the complexity of the problem.
Several years ago,, a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times, “Disunity in L.A.: Blacks Face Grim Future in Politics,” (October, 1989) painted a grim picture. The thrust of the article was that discord, dissension and division characterized L.A.’s African American community and there was no relief in sight. The political landscape for Los Angeles’ African Americans then, and now, reflected a national phenomenon of unfilled empowerment. The promise and influence of past generations had not then, and still has not been realized. The article asserts, “With few exceptions across the nation, Blacks ushered into office by the civil rights movement grew old in elected jobs that proved mostly to be dead-ends. Young, politically active Blacks, frustrated that their elders have not moved up, are increasingly looking to challenge them for primacy.” (Currently, Black Lives Matter is a prime example of the impact of organized youth. )
There was some validity to the doomsday prognostication for Blacks’ political future, but it did not follow that, politically, all was lost. The Times article begins by asserting that the future became grimly obvious for Blacks in Los Angeles in the autumn of 1986. The reference was to the city’s “senior Black leadership” being unable to anoint the next politician they hoped would succeed David S. Cunningham in the 10th District City Council seat. Their thinking was that a unanimous selection could have established the successor to Mayor Bradley as the city’s foremost Black politician.
This analysis presumes the city’s “Senior Black leadership,” whoever they were, were ordained to exercise awesome political power, apparently so entrenched and so unquestioned, that the group’s choice for the 10th District seat would have been elected to succeed Tom Bradley.
Los Angeles’ 10th district African American community was forced to examine, on the one hand, political stability and predictability as highly desirable; on the other hand, the negative implications of the primacy of such predictability was enormous. It could involve various forms of patronage, which is not unusual, and in this case, a “senior leadership” network as pre-eminent. That posed-and continues to pose-a real danger that political longevity is more a function of the absence of accountability than the competence of the officeholder.
African Americans must also carefully re-examine the role of tradition, sentimentality and unwritten codes such as, “Thou shalt not criticize nor, worst yet, run against an incumbent in the Black community.” Although most African American elected officials, and a great many citizens, take the status quo for granted, continued lock-step adherence to it is not in the Black community’s best interest. For example, unfortunately, the main criterion for winning and retaining elected office, by any means necessary, has become universally acceptable. And in the words of the late Speaker of the California Assembly, Jesse Unruh, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
That may be true in a strictly political sense, but money is not the mother’s milk of effectiveness and responsiveness nor does it serve unique needs of the African American community. It is past time for Black politicians and the community itself to redefine political effectiveness. Of course, reordering the status quo is a long and arduous process; the issues are extremely complex and are played out in the context of both national and local politics. Most important, redefining political effectiveness and the “art of the possible” must benefit the African American community.
Increasing numbers of immigrants, Latinos and Asians, especially, have threatened traditional African American political turf. Ultimately however, the only way to deal with the changing demographics and new political power configurations is to develop a very different politics based on moral and ethical values and unity—not with the anointment of “senior Black leadership.” Rather. It will happen with unity born of thoughtful, collective community oriented processes where the primary criteria relate to the specific interests of the African American community, as opposed to the narrow interests of a given politician, organization or political party. Needless to say, the younger generation of African Americans should never feel locked out of the political process. Certainly Black Lives Matter has the potential for helping to change that; whether it does depends on whether it is just a moment, or a movement.
Racism and White privilege remain a fact of life in this country and African Americans remain among the most victimized by its poison tentacles. There are countless examples of the continuing impact of racism’s pernicious effects. It should, be just as obvious that unless African Americans re-order their priorities, develop new definitions of political success and failure, and begin to define accountability themselves, the future will likely remain bleak. Let’s be clear though, a grim future for African Americans is by no means sealed, pre-determined or inevitable. To the contrary, present and future reality present a monumental challenge to the African American community and its political leadership—a challenge they cannot afford to ignore.