The Lucrative Business of Black Leadership

The headline in a leading Los Angeles black newspaper gloated "Community Leaders Support New Historic Driving While Black Bill." There were two things wrong with this. The bill by Black Democratic State Senator Kevin Murray that purported to attack the problem of racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement agencies in California was neither new nor historic. It was a terribly compromised bill that ripped the provision out of an earlier Murray bill mandating that police compile racial stats on unwarranted traffic stops.

Most experts agree that this is the only way to tell if police profile black and Latino motorists.

But the bigger thing wrong with the headline was that it presumed that the handful of black organizations pictured beneath the headline with names such as Zulu Men, Mothers in Action, African-American Unity Center, Black Agenda, and Black Ministers Conference could speak for all blacks. There was no indication who these groups represent and what their program is.

The arrogance of a handful of amorphous groups claiming to be the exclusive voice for blacks is the big reason many blacks ask, "Where are the black leaders?" "What are they doing for the community" They are talking about black leaders such as these as well as the NAACP, SCLC, Urban League, CORE, the Brotherhood Crusade, Jesse Jackson's Operation Push, black Democratic politicians, black ministers and celebrity activists.

Many of these leaders are mostly middle-class business and professional persons. Their agenda and top down style of leadership is remote, distant, and often wildly out of step with the needs of poor and working class blacks. They often approach tough public policy issues such as the astronomical black imprisonment rates, the dreary plight of poor black women, black homelessness, black-on-black crime and violence, the drug crisis, gang warfare, and school vouchers, with a strange blend of caution, uncertainty, and wariness. They keep counsel only with those black ministers, politicians, and professional and business leaders they consider respectable and legitimate and will blindly march in lockstep with their program.

Worst of all, they horribly disfigure black leadership by turning it into a corporate style competitive business in which success is measured by piling up political favors and corporate dollars. The sad thing is that it wasn't always this way. For decades mainstream black organizations such as the NAACP relied on the nickels and dimes of poor and working class blacks for their support. This gave them complete independence and a solid constituency to mount powerful campaigns for jobs, better housing, quality schools, and against police violence and lynching.

The profound shift in the method and style of black leadership began in the 1970s. With the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the collapse of the traditional civil rights organizations, the destruction and co-optation of militant activist groups, mainstream black leaders, politicians and ministers did a sharp volte face. They quickly defined the black agenda as: starting more and better businesses, grabbing more spots in corporations universities, and the professions, electing more Democrats, buying bigger and more expensive homes, taking more luxury vacations, and gaining admission into more country clubs.

They launched a frenzied campaign to establish themselves as the leaders of record for African-Americans. Their reward was more business and construction contracts, foundation grants, corporate contributions to their fundraising campaigns, dinners, banquets, scholarship funds and training programs. To keep the corporate dollars and political favors flowing smoothly, mainstream black leaders had to do several things.

- Monopolize leadership. They hold endless meetings, planning sessions, conferences, and confabs in which they back pat and self-stroke themselves with awards, plaques, tributes and testimonials. This enables them to better cut front and backroom deals, broker legislation and hatch schemes with politicians and business leaders on behalf of black communities but for their own personal gain.

- Pick low risk, high profile glitter issues. The NAACP's fight over the Confederate flag, the TV industry's white out of minorities, and the use of the word "nigger" are textbook examples of how mainstream black groups choose soft targets to get media attention, celebrity endorsements, and political prestige. These issues do not offend governors, mayors, city councilpersons, alderpersons, state and federal officials, corporate leaders and bank lenders.

- Media hogging. They frantically maneuver to command center stage at press conferences, get their pictures and quotes in news stories and features, and put their media spin on racial issues. This further solidifies their position as the annointed black leaders.

- Crush all opposition. They ruthlessly try to isolate, intimidate, and ostracize independent community activists who refuse to take their marching orders from them and are not in the hip pocket of politicians and corporate officials.

Those black leaders who turn leadership into a lucrative business transaction smother new, innovative local leadership, deaden social and political activism in black communities, and deepen cynicism of poor and working class blacks toward black organizations. This is a good business for them but a bad business for blacks.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming The Disappearance of Black Leadership (Middle Passage Press, Los Angeles, April 2000; Call 323-298-0266 for more information.)

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