As I watched the recent Democratic Party presidential candidates debate – if that infact was what passed as a debate – that was held in Nevada I was struck by the fact of the debate’s utter vapidity and chronic tendency to acute boredom. No wonder, I thought, that poll after poll of American public opinion has consistently placed the new Democratic Congress at the bottom of the job-rating heap with an extremely unpopular president, even at his worst, beating the party when it came to job-rating and favorability among the American people.
It was a sterile performance with very few redeeming graces with the only spark of excitement ignited when the male participants got to attacking New York’s Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. At other times all – including the only candidate of color, Senator Barack Obama (I say “color” because I don’t know if he’s a Black candidate) – trumping and following suit and only offering slight variations to each other’s fixed, academic and canned positions.
This lack of diversity in policy issues clearly demonstrated just how invisible and irrelevant that Black people, and Black leadership in particular, has become since the Republicans took over the reins of government. Indeed, the present political situation in America has helped to expose the very sharpness and glaring lack of Black leadership and its utter irrelevancy to the body politic in America today.
And yet there exists a serious dynamic that statistically offers up a curious contradiction in respect to Black leadership in today’s American society. At no time in American history have there been so many Black elected officials at the state, city and federal levels and so many qualified and schooled intellectuals in the public and private academic domains. But equally important as the quantity of debatable Black achievements and numbers is the dismal quality of this “we made it” quantity that is now being produced.
Correspondingly, at no juncture in American history has there been so complete a breakdown of Black society and the ghettoization of the inner city that has spawned in the Black community a privileged middle class plagued by overwhelming levels of conscious and unconscious self-hate as manifested in the distance these “successful Blacks” but between themselves and “the hood.”
It is this new selfish paradigm shift that has helped to define present day Black leadership. That is because today’s Black leadership is the product of a corrupted Black middle class whose outlook discourages, fetters and hinders the development or creation of any high quality political or civic leaders. The end result is that this modern, en vogue newly minted Black middle class from whose ranks the majority of present Black leadership come is a contemporary class construct that is based on a culture of obsessive status and merit and chronic addiction to superficiality in all things.
This Black leadership, no longer hungry and righteously angry at the present dismal state of Black life across the board, has become a tame, accommodating, genteel and compromising force that just wants to “get along” and quickly aligns itself with the dominant racial group in American society when upstart Blacks speak truth to power. So while Black communities retrogress into crime, poverty and hopelessness, with Black families in tatters and living in a kind of pervasive chaos that exists on a day-to-day basis, these Black leaders offer carefully crafted “politically correct” speeches, sport natty Armani suits, and boast about how they are the only “Blacks on the block where white people live.”
Personal accomplishment and achievements, while important, should not be the only standards that today’s Black leaders are measured and judged by. Because this cultural adjustment helps to create a distance from historical Black resistance to injustice, and a progressive ideology based on ethical values and ideals that were the driving forces that underpinned Black political struggle. Without this traditional grounding that was rooted in Black history and culture and its replacement with white “market values” activism there is no principled and courageous struggle for genuine Black advancement. This Black leadership is thus consistently and consciously engaged in accommodations and adjustments with the oppressive, coercive forces in society that collaborate and work against Black social and class interests.
Hungry for societal acceptance and status, today’s Black leaders lack boldness, courage and, yes, justified, righteous anger, to be effective. Rhetoric and posturing are not substitutes for genuine activism. Caught up in the mainstream system of rewards and status the Black Middle Class and Black leadership have been consciously and unconsciously corrupted by the allure of escaping their own Blackness by first rejecting it through self-hate and then trying to imitate the dominant paradigms set up by white society.
In the face of serious Black community degeneration and decay these Black leaders offer only temporary Band-Aid solutions that “keep the restive natives in their place.” They have set back and done great damage to the Blacks struggle for liberation by pretending that this struggle is over and by asking Black militancy to put its faith in their ability to sort things out given their proximity to the centers of power. They peddle their influence in the Black community in a most condescending way acting out a superiority that is based on the fact that most Black people are alienated from the political and economic mainstream.
Rhetoric and spin, empty promises and slick talk have now replaced genuine discussion and profound analysis. Today’s Black leaders who long ago ran from the inner city and ghetto blame Black youth and the Black community for its present state claiming that it is laziness, a failure to apply themselves, and a penchant for blaming the white man for all of society’s ills that have resulted in a lack of Black social advancement.
Yes, some of this is true but here again the Black Middle class and Black leadership has engaged in a bit of arrogant condescention. They come from the position that says “look at us we’ve made it and we came out of the projects. You failed to apply yourself and that’s why you are in this bad situation. Blame yourselves.” What’s wrong about this argument is that this layer of Black society is afraid to confront the legacy and the lingering negative effects of racism against Black people. Like all of white America, these well-to-do Blacks, embrace the position that any discussion on race relations, racism, prejudice and how all that still affects the American society today must be superfluous, shallow, limited and one-sided.
For example, United States Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama can’t articulate the issues that face Blacks in America today because he’s too busy “behaving properly.” He fails to see the difference between a Black candidate and a candidate who is Black. Instinctively, he prefers the one acceptable to white, mainstream America – a candidate who just happens to be Black. So he’s comfortable articulating issues that are near and dear to white, mainstream America while he is acutely uncomfortable when offering even a simple, non-threatening explanation on a subject that is uniquely Black.
His tortuous, painful and evasive response, for example, to the question of if he favors giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants was most instructive of how today’s Black leadership behaves. Obama, cognizant of the Republican charge that this was a national security issue, danced and hemmed and hawed. But he must have known that this was a road safety issue that was blown out of all proportion by the Republican spin machine and had absolutely nothing to do with United States’ national security. Yet Obama could not even say that because he wanted to be “like the mainstream boys and gals.”
So what is to be done to arrest this situation?
Well, it is admittedly no easy task and there is no one set of shoes to fit all the feet. But I believe that there must be a return to those traditional values of principled activism that the Black church was the custodian of and which produced some of the finest Black leaders of the last century. I also believe that in the 21st century there has to be a new Black leadership paradigm.