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?

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