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The Five Dilemmas of Black Leaders

A dialog on the Black Radical Congress list, February 1999

Art McGee <amcgee@igc.org> 01/31 5:06 PM
Here is this week's main discussion topic for the BRC-ALL list:

The Five Dilemmas of Black Leaders

By Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson <EHutchi344@aol.com>

Nearly a half century ago white Southern-born writer Robert Penn Warren asked, "Who Speaks for the Negro?" The question was, and will always be, silly and presumptuous. No one asks who speaks for whites, Latinos or Asians? No one individual or organization can speak for an entire group. The notion of a common leadership for blacks feeds more than an ageless myth. It exposes major dilemmas confronting black leaders.

This presents the first major dilemma for black leaders:

1. Class Division.

The latent class divisions have burst into gaping fissures between two black Americas, one poor, desperate and angry, the other prosperous, comfortable and complacent. Facing this crisis, many mainstream black leaders have backpedaled. The NAACP, Urban League, and SCLC replaced the nickels and dimes it received in support from blacks for decades with corporate and foundation dollars. They tailored their programs to accelerate opportunities for businesspersons and upwardly mobile professionals. The chase continues for SBA loans, scholarships and grants to pricey universities, corporate managerial positions, and suburban homes. Unfortunately, the black poor are nowhere to be found in that chase.

This presents the second major dilemma for black leaders:

2. How to win political concessions from the Democratic party (or if possible the Republican party) and for what, and for whom, they should win them?

The sad truth is that blacks have narrowed their political options down to essentially one: the Democratic party. The result: many black leaders have cradled even more cozily into the Democratic party and pared their demands down to more party appointments and political offices. Some black leaders have become even more mainstream and less responsive to the neediest, and most dispossessed in black communities. These individuals get less rather than more political representation.

This presents the third major dilemma for black leaders:

3. The challenge from the breed black conservatives.

About one-third of blacks publicly call themselves conservative and many more blacks privately agree with some, most, or all of what conservatives have to say. They also know that the old line civil rights leadership has been relentlessly battered and bruised during the 1980's and 1990's by conservative politicians and for failing to mobilize the black poor around the crisis problems of quality education, health care, declining public services, police abuse, crime, and drug destruction. These leaders have felt the criticism and wrath of many blacks who are mortally disillusioned with two party politics and convinced that they have not, and cannot, deliver the goods.

This presents the fourth major dilemma for black leaders:

4. The anointing of the chosen leader.

Many leaders have knowingly played along, for personal ego strokes and material gain, with the media game of perpetuating the fraud of the "monolithic black community," and christening a "leader" to speak and act on its behalf. The media shoves the "chosen black spokesperson" into the spotlight and pretends that issues not sanctioned by the "chosen one" are not issues. It is then free to ignore any and all local leaders, actions, agendas and causes it does not like. When blacks reduce leadership to star and celebrity gazing they pay a dear price.

This presents the fifth major dilemma for black leaders:

5. Young blacks.

Many young blacks are contemptuous of the hypocrisy and corruption of many black politicians and organizations. They see some of them wrapped in scandals, and seemingly endlessly grasping for sex, cash, and comforts. Some young blacks react by drifting into a state bordering on anomie or social withdrawal. Others become true menaces to society and prey on their own communities. Many mainstream black leaders have no answers to their plight. The economic, social, political and generational schisms among many African- Americans are broad. Mainstream black leaders, "gangsta" rappers, hip-hop icons, and black conservatives, are in an intense hunt to find workable programs and strategies to deal with the crippling internal crisis of blacks, young and old, rich and poor. Whoever can find them, still will not or cannot be the answer to the question, "Who speaks for the Negro?"

[Bio of Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D: Dr. Hutchinson is a syndicated columnist and has appeared as a guest on many national and local television and radio shows. He's written close to a dozen books, including "The Myth of Black Capitalism," and "Let Your Motto Be Resistance," and his most recent release "The Crisis in Black and Black." He is director of the Coalition Against Media Exploitation. He also lectures at major universities throughout the country.]

Unfortunately, black leaders and activists are too often forced to choose between working for the middle-class black community and the poor black community. We should not permit this class division.

I don't think we should look for much of anything from any political party until we are a better-organized force on our own. As long as we are relatively small and weak, some of our "leaders" will feel more of an obligation to those who can offer "a better butter for their bread."

So many wonder why our youth seem to be so angry, despite so many apparent material advantages compared to what many of us had. More toys and $150 sneakers just won't cut it. Our kids need more, and they are mad because they don't have it. I contend that they are because we, their elders, have not told them what's really up with this system, let alone given them the right tools to fight back.

On the one hand, we can ask black conservatives what they have to conserve. On the other hand, we cannot underestimate how well-organized and financed they (and especially those who back them) are.

I have known many white conservatives and have worked with them in the past. This taught me a lot about what the rest of us need to do to get better organized. I'll list a few things that most of us may know, but the far right has this stuff down like hardly anyone else I've seen:

1. Make an evangelistic crusade out of your cause. Talk about it, convert folx to your point of view. Don't let up.

2. Sacrifice time, money, and possibly your freedom for your cause.

3. Keep up-to-date mailing, telephone, and media lists. Use them often.

4. Call and write elected and appointed officials and get others to do it often.

5. Paint the opposition in the worst possible terms.

We must also stop looking for one black "leader," and don't let others believe that is what we are about. IMO, we are way beyond that. The reality is, not all of us were ever behind one black leader anyway.

Lastly (for now), it is not leadership that we need so much as it is mass direct action. Everyone has to do something and we must tell folx, "No one will fight for you better than you." We should all cooperate and help each other, but we can't let anyone in our community off the hook. We're all in it together.


Date: Mon, 1 Feb 1999 03:54:06 -0800 (PST)
From: "Wilson Riles Jr." <wriles@igc.apc.org>
Message-Id: <>

I believe that the dilemmas can be rephrased as (1) the WEB DuBoise vs Booker T. Washington debate, (2) the 'inside' and/or 'outside' tactic problem, (3) the 'house nigger'/'field nigger' or personality-breeding-distrust problem, (4) the problems of compromise and power-corrupts-all, and (5)the lack of foundation and vision. An answer for the problems of leadership is the consensus agreement to a sufficiently detailed PLAN. This gives 'followers' a means to measure leadership - does it lead to accomplishment of the PLAN - and it gives those with the talents and skills for leadership a foundation to hold on to and a vision toward which to build on to and mold the foundation.

(1) I do not believe that either WEB DuBoise or Booker T. Washington were totally correct, in that the Black race needs to do both. We can do both at the same time without forgetting one another and without jealousy, anger, or antagonism. We can be happy for our brothers who make it big in sports, business, music, movies, art, or academia. These are positive things. But as they move to conserve their gains, it is incumbent on them to remember and upon us to remind them from whence come their gains: the tremendous consumer predilection of Black folks. The PLAN must be one which justly and fairly calls on ALL Blacks from the upper to the lowest classes to give what they have to give for the improvement of the race. It must do this without putting anyone down, guilt-tripping anyone, or - 'like crabs in a barrel' - unjustly destroying one persons gains in order move someone else up. The Black race needs everybody's resources, talents, access to information, and contacts.

(2) Blacks have gotten about as much as they are going to get from the Democratic Party. We have gotten about as much as we are going to get from electoral politics. Hispanics are now in ascendancy. Politics is largely a game of money and numbers. Money continues to grow in importance in politics and numbers, particularly when those numbers do not vote, grow less influential. The role of electorial politics and political position is now more important to STOP something bad from happening than it is to make something positive happen. If the PLAN is almost entirely dependent on resources in the Black community without a great expectation from the Government, it can be accomplished without great expectations from the Democratic Party or Black elected officials. Their jobs will be to prevent the Government from interfering with the progress of the PLAN. Support them in their efforts to achieve party appointments and etc. if it will put them in a place to give an early warning or defend the PLAN from attack. Also let us be clear that in some districts Black have sufficient clout to force Non-Black politicians to at least defend our legal actions if they want to stay in office. If we gain any thing through the political process, that is just 'gravy.'

(3) The psychology of the oppressed is such that a significant percentage of any oppressed population will identify with what they believe to have the power. In the Nazi concentration camps there were jews who cut up and constructed their clothing to look like Nazi uniforms so that they could join their oppressors. The more there is unity around a PLAN, the less influence, voice, and attractiveness will there be in conservatism. Since no rational person would build toward a system which was not a mix of communitarianism and capitalism, there may be some thoughts of Black conservatives that may fit well in the PLAN. Clearly the PLAN should "mobilize the Black poor around...quality education, health care, declining public services, police abuse, crime, and drug destruction." A process can be developed to deal with these problems without buying into the conservative 'blame the victim' analysis.

(4) When a PLAN is paramount, the self-serving compromises and corruptions of power that are evident in media chosen Black spokespersons are more quickly exposed. Black leadership is measured by defense, accomplishment, or furtherance of the PLAN; not by number of times ones face appears on television.

(5) A PLAN places the good of the community at the center of Black life and activism. This gives young people a foundation to attach to. They can struggle to change the parts of the plan where their own genius tells them change is necessary; the must gain community consensus for the change so they must KNOW the community to be successful. Young people can build on the PLAN where it does not address some situation which they recognize needs to be addressed. And of course they are critical to the development of strategies, tactics, and activities to implement the PLAN. From where their own talents and skills take them, they can contribute to the accomplishment of it. Young people need something stable and firm to 'push' against. To test their talents and their strengths. They need 'rites of passage.' They need to feel a part of something which has some roots. They need to touch the fruits of their ancestors; a plan for African-American/African Diaspora Development could provide that stability.

Date: Mon, 01 Feb 1999 14:43:22 -0500
From: "Charles Brown" <CharlesB@CNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us>
Message-Id: <s6b5bd95.047@mail.ci.detroit.mi.us>

Thanks to Dr. Hutchinson for his lead essay for the week. I have read many of the articles from his syndicated columns and heard him on talk radio. He IS a Black leader, I think.

My comment grows out of something that has sort of dawned on me in recent activities. Much of the change that must take place for Black freedom is change in the conduct of white people. In other words, racism is not mainly something that Black people "do". It has the effect of preventing Black people of doing many things. But the end of racism will mainly be a major shift in the conduct of white people. Thus, Black people and Black leaders can only do so much in to achieve freedom, because , in the main, white people don't listen to Black people, leaders or followers. So, another dilemma of Black leaders is that some of the main solutions to the problems of Black people are not in Black people's hands.

Charles Brown

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