In this surreal-like but painfully real era of Donald Trump, Black people must re-examine their values and demand more effective leadership. The general public has less confidence in electoral politics and government than it did 45 years ago, even with Richard Nixon’s downfall. With good reason, Blacks have even less confidence than others in politicians and government’s effectiveness. However, they generally do not hold elected officials accountable and continue to suffer the consequences of their silence.
How will Blacks navigate the increasingly turbulent, conservative political and economic waters? The short answer is with great difficulty, given their crippling passivity since the civil rights era. Also, Black leadership’s internalization of their white counterparts’ individualistic and materialistic values contributes to the problem of Blacks themselves reinforcing conditions inimical to their own best interests.
One of the most misunderstood, unacknowledged, and paradoxical examples of Blacks adding to their own plight were their unrealistic expectations for Barack Obama and his presidency. His iconic status effectively prevented many Blacks from objectively assessing the man or his performance as president.
In his book, The Price of the Ticket: Obama and the Rise of Black Politics, Fredrick Harris, Director of the Institute for Research for African American Studies at Columbia University, offers a sobering and enlightening perspective on how Obama’s “race-neutral campaign” and his subsequent decision-making marginalized the struggle of the Black community. Harris raises the question of whether the price Blacks paid for Obama’s ticket to the White House was too high. (Erin Aubry Kaplan’s more recent book “I Heart Obama” also provides a broad and insightful examination of Obama’s presidency.)
Harris stresses the irony of Obama’s victory, contending he won by “denying he was a candidate of African Americans,” but his victory underscored the historical movements that made it possible. Harris says the disparities in Blacks’ “income and education, stratospheric incarceration and unemployment and rampant HIV had no prominent place in Obama’s approach to domestic problem-solving.” He also looked at the role of the forbearers of Obama’s opportunity and how race-neutral theory negatively affects the Black community.
In his groundbreaking work, The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon reminds us that one of the most harmful taboos is for the oppressed to seize power from the oppressor. “The foundation of this taboo is the mindset of the oppressed that is conditioned to accept whatever those in power require. If they are told things are great in the midst of disaster, the oppressed tend to believe it; if they are told that things are getting better, although every piece of evidence states otherwise, they feel compelled to do nothing, and wait for the blessings to flow.”
Although Black people have experienced the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow segregation there has never been a time when we were as politically fractured or as docile as we are now. While the election of Barack Obama was an astounding landmark, a close examination of the local scenes illuminated Blacks’ waning political influence in Los Angeles and throughout the nation. We would do well to heed Harris’ admonitions when assessing Blacks’ current status, politically and economically.
In recent years, electoral politics in South Central Los Angeles and surrounding communities with substantial Black populations like Inglewood and Compton has made little positive difference in the lives of the residents. (The rare fights among Los Angeles’ Black City Council members is largely a byproduct of their traditional, i.e. white individualistic rather than group oriented values. Reaffirming moral and ethical leadership values is the only sure way to effectively meet the needs of their Black constituents. (The implications of a heavy -handed authoritarian mayor and city council in nearby Inglewood should be clear to a discerning public.)
Generally, too many Black elected officials lack a commitment to fighting for structural changes needed to improve the lives of their Black constituents. They are tied to traditional political values at the expense of those constituents, but are known to claim things are better. All the while, Black people have lost ground in almost every area. Los Angeles neighborhoods with the highest Black population have the fewest jobs, lowest wages, per capita income, the lowest number of businesses in the city, etc. These disturbing facts are typically buried in the glare of mainstream media reports of how things have improved in Los Angeles overall.
To change their uncritical acceptance of the political status quo, Blacks must do what Fanon encouraged and strike strategic blows based on a clear vision, community organizing, and plans for communities most in need. This means engaging candidates more directly and electing only those who have demonstrated a commitment to putting constituent needs first. Whether they are professionals, academics, school teachers, homecare workers, formerly incarcerated or unemployed, Black people must consciously decide to take control of their own communities.
In recent years, there have been few sustainable attempts to rebuild a strong, grass-roots voice in South Central Los Angeles. Yet, such efforts are crucial because they have the potential to improve conditions for those most in need. Sustaining these efforts is also necessary to reverse the current Black political leadership void and widespread indifference among the masses.
Blacks must not only understand that changing electoral politics is crucial but also actively work to help make this happen. This means collectively, we must become sufficiently dissatisfied to demand more effective and accountable leadership.