Second of two parts
(The following paper was presented in April 2000 at a UC Santa Barbara Conference, California Dreamin’: Social Vision and the Crisis of California’s African American Communities. Clearly, the major barriers to Black progress have not changed and lasting solutions will require new thinking, new priorities and new behavior by Black leadership especially. )
Poverty, violence, unemployment and failing educational systems are among the major problems that still plague the Black community. Apart from the systemic causes, consider the following: Black people have internalized America’s values without full access to its benefits. This means they behave in ways contrary to their own best interests.
Racism and its cohort, white privilege, head the list of barriers to Black progress. Author Tim Wise: “When you can claim (Sarah Palin) that being mayor of a small town, governor of a sparsely populated state and chief advocate for the Tea Party makes you ready to be the President and people don’t soil themselves with laughter, it can only be attributed to white privilege.”
Black leadership’s challenges are perhaps greater than ever and the participation of middle-class and high-income Blacks in the struggle for justice is indispensable, but most are no longer involved. Also, Black leaders differ substantially, not just over remedies, but on the continuing effect of racism and race-related issues. These differences are most glaring in the chasm between today’s middle-class and poorer Blacks.
The professed cure of Brown vs. Board of Education and passage of civil rights legislation lulled Blacks into believing race no longer matters. Though never totally of one voice, Blacks nonetheless have met major challenges with fundamental accord and resilience. (Now, traditional civil rights organizations are struggling to expand their grass constituencies and depend largely on corporate dollars.)
The following excerpts (with my comments) are from Bruce Dixon’s, “Failure of the Black Misleadership Class.”
A cohort of Black business people and politicians who pass for African American leadership is at an impasse. Our leaders have failed to produce economic development models that benefit inner-cities and core Black enclaves. Not only is the Black leadership class unable to create jobs at living wages for hundreds of thousands of Black families, it can’t even describe to the rest of America how this might be done. They are reluctant to emphasize the acute shortage of low and moderate-income housing or publicly question conditions and programs that exacerbate that shortage. Black leadership has also proven powerless to significantly impact a nationwide imposition of separate and grossly unequal education. And African American businesses and political leaders lack the political will and imagination to rally their constituencies against the growth of a racially selective prison industry which has far-reaching economic and social consequences, particularly for Black youth.
With notable exceptions, elected officials have proven unwilling, or unable, to defend the very “democratic,” (political) openings that made their emergence possible. And many Black elected officeholders and political appointees eagerly embrace and seek to profit from privatization. They have become willing accomplices in the spatial de-concentration and dis-empowerment of Black communities.
Leading the nation in numbers of Black millionaires and ruled by Black mayors for more than thirty years, the city of Atlanta provides the best example of the failure and duplicity of the Black leadership class and its notion of economic development. In 1968, when Black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike for safer working conditions, decent wages and the right to have their union recognized, Black ministers joined by many others, marched with the strikers. Eight years later, in Maynard Jackson’s Atlanta, nurturing millionaires and the business class took precedence over addressing the challenges of ordinary people. Jackson, rallying white business leaders and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, fired more than a thousand city employees to crush a strike that resulted when he refused to honor prior pay raises for Black men who picked up the city’s garbage.
The economic justice agenda of the King-era prophetic leadership has been discarded and the concerns of the new Black political and business class are largely limited to self-serving priorities. It is now indisputably clear that economic development as practiced and administered by African American business and political elite does not lead to economic justice. New economic development models that benefit Black communities can only come from new conversations and new commitments by the targeted communities themselves.
Obviously, there are no easy solutions to tough issues like poverty, housing, jobs and ensuring Black children receive a quality education; do we rehabilitate and rebuild affordable housing or simply demolish housing and disperse the people?
Most Black leaders seem unable to think outside of the box on privatization, de-concentration and public subsidies for gentrification. This results in large measure from their aligning with corporate America, mainstream media and accepting huge campaign contributions. Economic empowerment of Black communities must again include embracing moral and ethical values, visionary thinking and community mobilization. It also requires honest discussions within and across Black socioeconomic levels and actually holding Black leadership accountable.
If Black leaders continue to emulate their white counterparts without proper regard for the needs of those they are entrusted to serve, ominous predictions for the future will have proved correct. To debunk this and similarly draconian forecasts, a new Black leadership vanguard must chart a course that actually empowers Black people. Ultimately, the future depends on whether the Black community itself demands ethical, accountable and effective leadership.