Monday, December 17, 2007

Leadership in the post-black era

Check out "The Obama Effect" in the December 31 issue of The Nation, where Gary Younge contrasts new generation black politicians like Sen. Barack Obama, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and others, to the old guard: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, et. al.

Younge says today's black leaders differ from their forbears in that they have no first-hand involvement in the civil rights movement. In fact, they may not even have a real connection with civil rights touchstone events. (Barack Obama was just two years old when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech). Unlike Jackson and Sharpton, new leaders are not rooted in the black church or other organizations that have an "organic link with the black community." Today's prominent black politicians are drawn from "academe, corporate America and elite universities." In other words, rather than being part of the civil rights movement of the 60s, the new guard are products of that movement.

According to Younge, Obama, Patrick, Booker, Democratic Leadership Council chair Harold Ford, Jr., and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, also differ from traditional black leaders in another way:

The emergence of this cohort has filled the commentariat with joy--not just
because of what they are: bright, polite and, where skin tone is concerned,
mostly light--but because of what they are not. They have been hailed not just
as a development in black American politics but as a repudiation of black
American politics; not just as different from Jesse Jackson but the epitome of
the anti-Jesse.


In other words, the new diplomatic, work-within-the-system black leader doesn't make white folks feel uncomfortable. In fact, the very existence of the "new Negro leadership" makes it easy to dismiss charges of continuing racial inequality.

In my view, the biggest difference between black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and new prominent politicians like Obama, Ford, Fenty, etc., is that the latter are not black leaders at all. By that I mean, I don't think that Barack Obama's primary mission is the uplift of the black race. I imagine he seeks to be a leader, without the qualifier. That's okay. The work of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Angela Davis and other lions of the movement made it possible for someone like Obama to seek to lead a nation--all people not just black ones.

This is not to say the struggle for racial equality is over. Far from it. It's just that every prominent black person needn't pick up the mantle of Jesse Jackson. In fact, as I've said before, I think the era of the singular black leader is over. I doubt there is one person who can meet the widely varying needs of the black populace. We need many leaders, working within the system and without, working for justice for all and justice for black Americans.

What is your take on The Nation article?

5 comments:

Mes Deux Cents said...

Tami,

"In my view, the biggest difference between black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and new prominent politicians like Obama, Ford, Fenty, etc., is that the latter are not black leaders at all."

I agree except the premise may be off. We would have to conclude that Jackson and Sharpton are Black leaders. I don't think they are. I think they are only posing as Black leaders. What they really are; are opportunists.

So I'm not sure if the Nation can make the comparison when the premise is wrong.

What do you think?

Tami said...

If you look at Jackson in his early career, I would say that he was a black leader. I think in the civil rights era, black people's primary needs were more unified, so there could be a few leaders that spoke for vast numbers of African Americans. I think the problem is that in the post-civil rights era, the needs of black people are wildly diverse and are influenced by class, education, gender, etc. It is hard to have a leader in the mold of early Jackson and his cohorts. Jackson and Sharpton speak for some black people, but not even close to all, or even most. Add to that the fact that years of being feted as part of the civil rights elite has corrupted many old guard leaders (see my Andrew Young post). Unfortunately, the mainstream media still gives us only these voices when race comes up. They act as if these few men still speak for us all.

Symphony said...

totally agree with your last statement tami. Jackson and Sharpton may not be a voice for all but they are a voice for some and many times, the only voice for those.

I dont see the new guard tackling unequal justice. And unequal justice isn't just about Jena 6 and Genarlow Wilson. We all know there is some shadiness going on.

I like people who make the status quo uncomfortable. You need those who can grease the wheels and those who can start a firestorm.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Tami,

Check Racialicious, they have a post about the Amy Winehouse salon article.

Tami said...

Symphony-Yeah, I like the rabblerousers, too. I think there is room in the movement for those folks and the diplomats. In fact, I think today both are crucial. I think we need to let prominent blacks be who they are.

MDC--Thanks for the heads up. The poster at Stereohyped perfectly articulated what bothered me about that Salon article.

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