Is Black Leadership Dead? The State Of Leadership In The Community And Figuring Out How To Revitalize It
Is black leadership dead?
I find myself intrigued by that question ever since the election of Barack Obama brought about a public debate within some in the black community on whether or whether not he should be considered a black leader. Apparently, Bob Johnson, black billionaire and founder of BET, is just as intrigued, because earlier this month he released the data from his national survey, which he co-commissioned with Zogby, on how African Americans felt about President Obama, the economy, and if their lives were better off having lived under the Obama Administration’s tenure. According to RJ Companies, the website where the data is published, the opinions of 1002 randomly selected black adults were included in this survey and they were polled by both phone and online survey. However, despite the massive promise, the results of the survey offered very little in providing real measurable insight.
Among the non-surprises, this poll revealed that 91 percent of black folks see President Obama as favorable and 72 percent believe that his election has helped them individually. And because of this virtual non-reveal, certain members of the black media didn’t waste any time unmasking the data, including Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report, who in post called the survey “pretty sloppy work,” which he writes, “didn’t really tell us much useful.” Writes Ford: “What have we learned? That a billionaire, Black or white, can spend all the money he wants asking poorly constructed questions for no other purpose than to remind people that he is still rich.”
I don’t know if I agree with Ford’s conclusion, as I’m pretty sure there is some purpose Johnson is trying to achieve outside of statistically stuntin’ on a Negro. But his point about question construction is noted. And as Ford, I too raise an eyebrow at this particular question from the poll, which asked respondents to choose which of the following people speaks for them most often. The multiple choices include the following:
1. Rev. Al Sharpton
2. Rev. Jesse Jackson
3. Congresswoman Maxine Waters
4. NAACP Chief Ben Jealous
5. Congressman James Clyburn
6. Urban League President Marc Morial
7. Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican Party
You do have to wonder why these particular people were selected out of all the black folks who have ever stepped on a soapbox and did or said something worth being called a leader. First, there are a couple of people on this list I wouldn’t call black household names. Likewise, with the exception of some small nuances in beliefs and Michael Steele – the list’s sole republican – I wouldn’t exactly call this list diverse. Although a polarizing figure, a list of leaders, which excludes Louis Farrakhan is ignorant of his influential reach within the community. I mean, the Million Man March anyone? Bueller? I guess then it should come as no surprise that while Sharpton received 24 percent of the tally, making him the winner of the leaders listed, the vast minority of people – 40 percent – decided that none of the leaders listed best represented their interest.
Problems with the question structure aside, there does seem to be an obsession with declaring a black leader in the community. With the plethora of social, economic and political problems affecting the community, folks understandably yearn for the days of messiah-like figures such as Malcolm X and the and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who could lead our community to greatness. And yet today, as blacks progress further economically and politically and are now welcomed in spaces that they have traditionally been excluded from because of the color of their skin in the past, there seems to be a less identified black leader or message coming from within the community. Or as Kirsten West Savali writes for NewsOne:
“The big reveal of Johnson’s poll is not that there are no clear leaders, but that there are no clear Black agendas from which clear leaders can emerge. When the goal of assimilation becomes primary, the fights of the every-day Black (wo) man become secondary. And the plight of everyday Black people, communalism, was at the heart of of those movements of yesteryear which required leaders to organize the masses. The time of sharing a common goal has faded into the current zeitgeist of simply sharing a common skin tone — and overwhelming pride that someone with like skin tone has become the face of the United States.”
I believe there is a lot of truth to what West- Savali writes. I also think though, that throughout our history in America (and more likely before our ancestors got to the shores), there has never been a clear black agenda or person (s), who represented the ideas and interests of the collective black experience. I’m willing to bet that anytime throughout the history of black folks in this country, a similar question about black representation would produce the same varied responses as what we see in the Johnson/Zogby poll. I know it would have been true for the era of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois; it was true of the era of Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr; and it is true for today’s contemporary black leaders. And it is not necessarily centered on the question of should we or shouldn’t we assimilate, but the unresolved question about how to handle women and gay rights in addition to intra-racial class distinctions. Splits and disagreements within both the King-led Civil Rights Movement and the Malcolm-led separatist movement reflected the significance of these sub-contexts. These questions, as well as how black leaders at any given time choose to respond to them, added certain nuances that throughout history tend to make having a sole black agenda unlikely, in addition to increasing the chasm between us intra-racially even further.
Black leadership is not dead, just dormant. Truth of the matter is that there are lots of people of today, who by using traditional modes of organizing, could be considered leaders in a different time. In fact, many of the people listed in the question would qualify. However, times are changing socially. And a new style of leadership is needed to reflect what is a socially evolving community. The time is ripe for a leader to emerge, who can speak fluently and champion the cause of not just black empowerment but black empowerment through gender, sexual orientation and class equality too.