First of two parts
Today’s column, the first of two parts, revisits an earlier discussion of Black leadership in a paper I presented in April of 2011 at a UC Santa Barbara conference called “California Dreamin’.” The need to focus on improving Black leadership and the current state of Black America is necessary in order to build a more secure and prosperous future.
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 social, political and economic benefits, most Blacks are reluctant to challenge the status quo.
In Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas, the plethora of pressing issues range from schools’ failure to teach Black children and racial profiling to excessive violence, widespread police abuse and pervasive poverty. The school district continues to fail Black students but Black educators and other Black leadership remain conspicuously silent. Other important issues include struggling Black businesses- while 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 ongoing divide between Blacks and Latinos. Unfortunately, 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 Black workers get living wage jobs.
Black and Latino leaders, when pressed, profess interest in working together, but rarely do so on a sustained basis. In addition, Black leaders’ failure to consistently,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 a few years ago. 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 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’s codes. 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 an social 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, only more visible 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 sustainable pressure to bring about 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” is mostly rhetoric; having internalized the white majority’s values, Black leaders rarely challenge white power, fearing loss of claimed leadership status. Weak challenges collide, impeding Black progress in the continuing struggle for justice. Systemic barriers would have proven fatal long ago but for Blacks’ storied resilience. Resilience alone is not sufficient, however, witness unchallenged Black leadership despite its lack of accountability and in recent times,storied ineffectiveness.
Ineffective, self-serving leadership and its cohort, disunity, have rendered Black people’s political strength far weaker than it needs to be. Clearly, moving from individualism to group orientation is necessary to successfully collaborate with others, but even more important, is to operate from positions of strength, not weakness. Black leaders generally seem to lack either the will or integrity to do everything possible to meet constituents’ needs.
(Sadly, the ethical and moral leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are faint memories for many
Blacks.) As one commentator noted, “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 tend to do just that, and with impunity, chiefly because their constituents fail to hold them accountable.