The Historical Failure of Black Leadership
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS: Pascal Robert
With the black community still facing excessively high unemployment, the racial wealth gap between blacks and whites expanding to numbers higher than recent history, fully one-third of the black community in abject poverty, and overall rates of poverty as high as they’ve been in over 40 years, what has happened to black leadership? In the face of endless statistics showing the rapid decline of whatever illusory semblance of progress blacks imagined, such signs of progress have almost evaporated in less than a decade. The ridiculous claim that Barack Obama ushers in a new era of black leadership is erroneous on its face. The Commander in Chief has made it clear, publicly stating, “I am not the president of Black America.” Furthermore, many voices in the black community clamored that, “we can’t expect Obama to do anything for us because he can’t appear to show favoritism.”
Such sentiments castrated any effective capacity to pressure the first black president to implement policy demands made by the black community. Instead, blacks were resigned to the limited palliatives his administration chose to dole out.
Black people are trapped in a vicious cycle of looking at their favorite leaders and revering them like baseball cards. There lacks an understanding of the full dimension of these leaders and the nature of their relationship to the status quo forces that place them in these positions. These so-called “leaders” are not democratically elected by the black community, yet they have sometimes damaged powerful grassroots movements, democratic in nature, that existed while status quo forces decided to elevate them to positions of power. The process of elevating certain leaders, while pitting them against others who were similarly elevated, allows the establishment to manage the acceptable range of discourse in the black community relative to social and political options.
As noted African American political science Professor Adolph Reed, Jr. stated in his thought-provoking book, Stirrings in The Jug:
To be sure, because Afro- Americans have had no referendum or another forum for legitimizing claims to be a national leader, the support of White opinion makers have been keen for all aspirants to such Race Leader status. From Marcus Garvey to Elijah Muhammad to Louis Farrakhan to Jesse Jackson-all have reproduced the ironic strategy of seeking to become the Black Leader by means of White acclamation.
Black Leadership being chosen by white acclamation is nothing new and goes back as far as the late 1800s. In an almost formulaic fashion, continued well into the 20th century, the status quo establishment propped up black leaders who presented acceptable remedies to the “race problem,” then elevated an opponent ideology with a fixed critique. The result was to limit the discourse to those two accepted or acknowledged paradigms.
Booker T. Washington received wide-ranging support from Northern industrialists and establishment economic forces in the South promoting an acceptable ideological thesis of accommodation. Subsequently, W.E.B. DuBois, through elite ideological mechanisms, was presented as a philosophical anti-thesis, forcing the process of synthesis to be limited to two totally undemocratic paradigms. Both of these paradigms were chosen by establishment gatekeepers mostly outside the black community. The same process occurred with DuBois and Marcus Garvey and continued through Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. It’s called a Hegelian Dialectic and the black community has fallen victim to it over and over since the 1890’s. None in today’s black community talk about the Colored Farmers Alliance which had over one million members functioning as one of the most progressive Black economic and political forces the community developed in this country. Started in 1886, slightly more than 20 years after slavery, the Colored Farmers Alliance was eventually made up of over 1.2 million farmers and farm workers engaged in extensive co-operative efforts while maintaining a publication and sponsoring many educational initiatives and conventions.
As mentioned by History Professor Judith Stein in her piece included in the anthology, Renewing Black Intellectual History, entitled: “Of Booker T. Washington and Others, The Political Economy of Racism in the United States:”
The [Colored Farmers’ Alliance] [through] suballiences were simultaneously fraternal organizations which helped sick and disabled members and purveyed advice on farming, raising families and other problems of interest to rural people; they also taught the principles of the order of political economy. Quickly expanding its activities, the Alabama [Colored Farmers’ Alliance] created a marketing exchange in Mobile, united against the contested mills to obtain higher prices for seed, and cooperated with the Southern Alliance (made up of Whites) in other areas affecting farmers.
These were former slaves barely a generation removed from shackles.The Colored Farmers’ Alliance started to work extensively with the Southern Alliance, made up of Whites, and the two organizations confederated in 1890. Furthermore, the two organizations cooperated on many initiatives to protect farmers from economic exploitation by larger Southern Institutions. Moreover, the two organizations fused their activity into the Populist Movement and Populist Party that rose in the South during that time. This interracial cooperation, within such a short period after Slavery, mobilized Black and White farm workers into a powerful force threatening the Southern establishment and the political order benefiting the elites.
One of the responses to this rising progressive interracial cooperation by the Southern establishment was supporting Booker T. Washington and financing his Tuskegee machine. Washington would provide an ideological thesis to extinguish the populist activities among Blacks and neutralize the combined forces of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and the Southern Alliance by arguing for political disenfranchisement and acquiescence to the forces of the larger Southern agricultural interests. These efforts worked to the detriment of members of both alliances, black and white.
Sadly, few blacks today even realize that there was a progressive movement in the South made up of both blacks and whites that fought for both political and economic empowerment with sophisticated political platforms until Booker T. Washington, combined with the repressive forces of the wealthy interests that backed him, assisted in stifling all that activity. Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee machine was significant to that demobilization effort.
Furthermore, let us not forget that Booker T. Washington gave his Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895 where he said: “In all things social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” yet it wasn’t until 1896 that the Supreme Court handed down one of the most devastating decisions for African American progress Plessy v. Ferguson that enshrined Separate but Equal into law for most of the next century. Booker T. Washington was not reacting to the racial reality being faced by blacks; he was helping create a racial climate that advanced the agenda of his Tuskegee Machine. These are things blacks don’t consider as we continue to prop up our black “superheroes” for idol worship.
Most, if not all of these black leaders believed they had good intentions and were race men to some level or degree. My intention is not to picture them as duplicitous traitors who volunteered to be played in this fashion. The point is that these men do not rise in a vacuum, and though they have great talent and charisma, they all fall into the rather consistent trope of the “charismatic black male leader.” This is a paradigm that has been lodged in the African American psyche going back to the origins of the Black Church, if not earlier. Charismatic masculinity has been an Achilles heel of black leadership for a simple reason: though whites romanticize charismatic masculinity as well, their leaders, which are chosen from that mold, are picked in a crucible assuring their allegiance to protecting the interests of those they represent. With black folk, the charismatic leader rises to some level of notoriety organically because of his skill, but once his agenda is fully vetted, or its range is telegraphed by the status quo, he will be catapulted upward into prominence when they see he can be used to their benefit. Often times he will seek those status quo forces out, whether they be government, the private sector, or media. This process allows a form of “race ideology management.” You now have limited the acceptable range of discourse by picking your favorable thesis, but need to create an opposition strain to provide an anti-thesis, so you can manage and telegraph the synthesis. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are the perfect illustrations of this old method.
The only way to remedy this consistently bankrupt organizational model is to develop black political mobility that unites people around issues that represent their class and economic interests instead of depending on the illusion of racial kinship forcing us to foist our representation on people chosen within a status quo paradigm. This leads to another problem in the black community: the reality of “brokerage” politics. A middle class educated black person, or a black person faking grassroots bona fides, acts like a “broker” for the “downtrodden” with the powerful whites as if he’s a legitimate representative of their interests. Ironically this broker is elevated to leadership by the same status quo forces the establishment controls. Brokerage politics is a farce, and blacks are one of the few communities that fall prey to this charade.
Think about it: You have Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton engaging in various discourse about what Barack Obama should or should not do for the black poor. What is wrong with this picture? All of these men are millionaires if not close to it, including Obama! Why would a logical community of poor people allow millionaires to be the ones who negotiate their interests for them? It’s idiotic. What ends up happening is that these types of “representatives” do things to ensure their viability as “brokers,” while securing their financial status and yammering on about the same things over and over again. Meanwhile, the poor and disenfranchised continue to get ground to powder. More often, these “brokers” go into overtime trying to maintain close relationships with those at the levers of power. Hence, they actually become servants of those forces. Al Sharpton is a perfect example of the current administration.
This is not to say that there is no value in having notable individuals speak out against political administrations that advocate policies that damage constituencies they have sympathy for. People of other ethnic groups do this as well. The problem in the black community is that such individuals are given some kind of mythical status as actual legitimate representatives of a “collective black interest” whatever that actually is.
The remedy for this old tired model of leadership is to give power to the people as to empower themselves. At the grassroots level, people must be trained with the organizational and political capital to advocate and fight for policy and economic models that best serve their needs. They must negotiate their interests in democratic organizational structures with checks and balances on leadership that truly reflect their demographic realities. Many educated elites would dare argue that the poor and working class don’t have the capacity to advocate for themselves and need the traditional brokers. Once again, the example of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance becomes relevant. Less than 30 years after slavery when blacks were at a position much more precarious than they are today, with high levels of illiteracy, they were able to organize a grassroots movement of 1.2 million members that advanced social, economic, and political interests in line with their positions in society while effectively challenging the economic status quo and making political alliances with similarly situated whites. Therefore, shall we argue that in the early 21st century, with all the technological and media vehicles we have, that such mobilization is impossible today? The black brokerage leadership model needs to die. Grassroots movement based politics has to make a comeback or else the black community is doomed. The paradigm must be sophisticated and cannot be the mundane standard Kumbaya “We Shall Overcome” pickets and protests format. Those tactics may occasionally be used, but the strategy must be refined and adapted to modern times and given cross-generational functionality. We see where the 45-year absence of movement based activism has gotten us. The time is now to wake up and mobilize collectively or abdicate forever to the status quo. "The choice is ours. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”-Frederick Douglass.