“Black Leaders…or Leading Blacks?”

by Leutisha Stills, CBC MonitorTavisAtMic

"Are you empowered by this conversation?" Tavis Smiley asked the thousands drawn to the annual State of the Black Union conference. The crowd roared back in the affirmative, but power - and a plan to use it - was precisely what was missing, this past weekend. The most important lesson learned from the event, was the awesome absence of coherence in a Black politics that is no longer fueled by a mass movement. Tavis, the hugely talented impresario, can't fix that.


"Black Leaders...or Leading Blacks?"


by Leutisha Stills, CBC Monitor


"Accountability is precisely what much of so-called Black leadership rejects."


TavisStudioNPR Black America's leadership structures are in disarray. Such was evident and, in various ways, widely acknowledged at media entrepreneur Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union event, held this past weekend at Hampton University, in Virginia. The forum has evolved into an annual substitute for genuine politics in a Black polity that is bereft of institutions of accountability. By default, Tavis fills the void with his road shows and media exhibitions. But Mr. Smiley is not the problem: he is simply a businessman, who sees a hole in the market where a movement used to be.


"Are you enjoying this conversation?" Smiley asked the crowd during the forum's afternoon session. "Are you EMPOWERED by this conversation?" As expected, the audience roared back in the affirmative, despite the obvious fact that they would leave the predominantly Black university campus no more empowered than when they arrived.


Again, this is not Tavis Smiley's fault. He had assembled an impressive group of activists, educators, politicians, clergy and businesspersons to discuss the state of affairs in Black America in 2007. However, the most important lesson learned from the totality of conversation, was the awesome absence of coherence in current Black politics - much less a plan to revive a movement as an engine for progress.


We are grateful to Dr. Julia Hare, a founder of The Black Think Tank located in San Francisco, for the title of this article. She forced us to think about the distinction between authentic Black leadership and those Blacks who purport to lead us, but have been chosen by others. Dr. Hare asked the question - "Do we have Black Leaders? Or do we have those who are Leading Blacks?"


"The most important lesson learned from the totality of conversation, was the awesome absence of coherence in current Black politics."


JuliaHare Smiley's self-assignment, for which he is hugely competent, is to assemble luminaries offering a variety of viewpoints, allowing African Americans to pick and choose among divergent opinions. Yet the mechanisms to implement any of the items on the eclectic menu through mass or elective action, are either missing (the absence of a movement) or broken (incoherence within Black electoral political formations such as the Congressional Black Caucus).


Tavis, the impresario, can't fix that, but he does put on a good show - which, at present, is all we've got. I think he anticipated the collapse of Black political leadership some time ago, and for that reason initiated the Annual State of the Black Union back in 1998. His panel members, themselves, seemed to confirm that confusion and frustration are the order of the day.


People ask, "does it mean anything that we have more African Americans holding elected offices" than ever before, said L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia and current mayor of Richmond. "Does it mean anything to most of us? Yay, sometimes nay."DougWilder


Newly elected Minnesota Black congressman Keith Ellison, weary of listening to meaningless moaning and moralizing from Black folks who should be formulating real policies and plans, wanted to hear less about "generational debates" and more about universal health care. "I wish we could talk more about it today rather than whether Black kids are acting right or not." Rep. Ellison urged panel members and audience to concentrate on issues of peace, ways to provide working and middle class prosperity, and voting rights.


On the subject of Sen. Barack Obama, who the same day was officially declaring his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, Ellison asked: "What's the agenda - that's the question!" The crowd gave him a huge ovation.


keith_ellison Although Obama was a thousand miles away presenting an essentially race-less message to a mostly white crowd, questions attached to his candidacy seemed to hover over the auditorium. The conversation at Hampton, Tavis Smiley later told reporters, was "more Ba-rack than I-raq."


Dr. Hare had already warned us about allowing the corporate-owned media to pick Black leaders. We were reminded that Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King so believed in equality and social justice for all, they were willing to die for their convictions. But what are Obama's beliefs? And, as emeritus historian Lerone Bennett Jr. wondered, is he willing to die for them? 


"Does it mean anything that we have more African Americans holding elected offices?"


The very term "New Black Leader" is a code word for "Non-threatening Negro who will keep other Blacks in their place if they're in charge."  Many of these so-called leaders threw their lot in with the "First Black President," Bill Clinton. The result was passage of trade legislation that sent more jobs out of this country than the Great Depression; no universal healthcare; "welfare reform" that allowed for no meaningful transition for recipients and left them flat out hanging when the benefits dried up; and a penal justice system that has sent more brothers to the joint for non-violent offenses than to college.


Mass incarceration is a priority issue for the Black masses, if not for most African American elected officials, as was reflected at the State of the Black Union. "I am tired of young boys and girls who are just acting out, and should be put in the principal's office...being put in the criminal justice system," said Malika Saada Saar, Founder and Executive Director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. TV Judge Glenda Hatcher noted that "one in three Black males will wind up in prison" are current rates of incarceration.


At the current rate of New Orleans reconstruction and return of the exiled majority, Black folks will never get home. "When can we have a Million Man March on New Orleans, to assist our people in need?" read a question to the panel from the audience, transmitted by radio personality Tom Joyner. The answers were less than satisfactory.


"Twenty-thousand marched in April," said Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who was onejesse_jackson of the leaders of the New Orleans demonstration, "and maintained [Black mayor Ray] Nagin in office. That's why they still control their politics."


Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. urged "Black conventions, sororities, fraternities, to hold their meetings in New Orleans.... Every Black organization ought to turn their meetings to New Orleans."


But what about a million-person march on the city? There could be no forthright response, because no combination of persons on the panel, or anywhere else in Black America, is prepared to mobilize millions to descend on New Orleans with comprehensive plans and demands suited to the scale of the catastrophe. Katrina represents an indictment of a "Black leadership" that lost its moorings when the Black movement was allowed to atrophy - a failure of epic proportions, for which putative leadership must be held accountable.


Yet accountability is precisely what much of so-called Black leadership rejects. Former Congressional Black Caucus chairman Mel Watt (D-NC) verbally attacked my organization, the CBC Monitor, for issuing a Report Card that dared to evaluate the caucus's performance on legislative issues that matter to the poor and working class community. Outraged at the very concept of accountability, Watt charged the CBC Monitor was no better than the white media in critiquing their performance as lawmakers.

"Katrina represents an indictment of a ‘Black leadership' that lost its moorings when the Black movement was allowed to atrophy - a failure of epic proportions."

Brother Tavis is correct when he says, "When you get Black America well, all of America gets well."  And so goes another State of the Black Union conference, where, unlike in conferences past, one didn't leave with the feeling that we came to be entertained, spiritually uplifted (though John P. Kee did a good turn), and hear cheerleading speeches from luminaries.


Tavis Smiley's fortunes have risen in direct proportion to the decline of Black leadership, which today is largely a gaggle of media-dependent personalities and elected officials contemptuous of their own constituents. No amount of showmanship can conceal the vast, empty space that separates the people and those who claim to speak for them.


The entire Black leadership class must be made to apply for renewal of their lapsed credentials.


We are tired of "Black Faces in High Places."  A Black Leader should be a Black Leader, and not just "Leading Blacks" to their doom. 


Leutisha Stills is Researcher of the CBC Monitor Report Card, and a member of the Faculty/Administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.  She can be reached at [email protected].