What Happens When the Role of Spokespersons and “Leaders” for the Black Collective Transitions from Activists and Practitioners to Politicians and Mainstream Media “Talking-Heads?”
From the time that people of African descent were first brought to the continent of North America starting in the 16th century, to the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first “black” president in 2007, leaders of and spokespersons for the uplift and advancement of black people were drawn from among their own ranks. Such persons were most often referred to as “race-men” or race-women. This designation referred to the fact that they were demonstrably committed to the betterment of blacks in America who were descended from the Africans forcibly brought here and made to labor without compensation for over 300 years. Until the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the urging of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois in 1909, and the National Urban League (NUL) in 1910, few (if any) natural black leaders or spokespersons were employed to do their work on behalf of their people. Rather, they were motivated by genuine concern about the downtrodden condition of their people, and a heartfelt desire to aid and abet their uplift and advancement.
With the founding of the NAACP and NUL, the first salaried persons joined the ranks of those engaged in helping blacks to overcome the effects of involuntary servitude. While this was a positive development on its face, the downside is that the financing for those paid positions came from sources outside our race, and in large part from certain elements of the Jewish community for the NAACP, and the corporate community for the NUL. As a result, and with few exceptions, blacks never developed our own structured and systematic mechanisms for hiring paid employees to serve as leaders and spokespersons for our collective. This led to the emergence of a dependency relationship between black activists and white philanthropic individuals and groups that persists to this day. The incomparable Marcus Mosiah Garvey sought to break this “stain of dependency” with his founding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) early in the 20th century and came close to succeeding. However, the U.S. government and its empirical European allies took note of Garvey’s potential threat to their colonial aspirations and moved expeditiously to derail Garvey and his efforts.
Fast-forward to developments following Barack Obama’s election. At the time of Obama’s success, all leaders of and spokespersons for the black collective had openly stated the case for and made demands on behalf of blacks to the near-exclusion of non-blacks. Obama’s election to the U.S. Presidency automatically elevated him to the position of principal “leader” of black people – over such established luminaries as Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Min. Louis Farrakhan, Tavis Smiley, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright to name a few. I refer to this phenomenon as Obama having been catapulted into the position of “Paramount Chief” of black folks in America.
Unlike natural black leaders who had preceded him, Barack Obama had no previous interest or involvement in the historical movements to uplift and advance blacks who had survived slavery and its after-effects. Indeed, when he was asked at a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, FL what he would do for the black community if elected, candidate Obama stated emphatically that he would do nothing of particular interest to, or to appease black people in particular. Rather, blacks had better prepare themselves to take advantage of whatever programs he would as President put in place for ALL Americans; then roll up their sleeves, “elbow their way up to the feeding trough,” and claim their proportionate share of whatever benefits were to be derived therefrom!
I applaud Barack Obama for his honesty toward black folks on that occasion. Whatever was to follow that event, blacks had been duly forewarned that they would receive no special consideration as beneficiaries of an Obama administration! Further proof of this contention was provided during one of the subsequent debates when each candidate was asked in turn if he or she would support “reparations for slavery.” Barack Obama was the most emphatic in saying NO to that question, and except for Dennis Kucinich, all the other candidates followed suit.
It is to the eternal shame of the black electorate that they gave Obama 97% of their votes in the resulting election in spite of his rejection of all things identifiably black! We proved that black voters could be taken for granted by the Democratic Party no matter what and without fear of punitive consequences to the party or its candidates.
In the wake of Obama’s ascendancy, a number of important transformations have taken place, including but not limited to the following: 1) No party or candidate for high office in America now has to include a “plank” in their platform specifically for the black electorate; 2) “Black” as a specific reference for Americans of African descent has all but been abandoned by politicians and the mainstream media in favor of the ill-defined “people-of-color” (POC) designation. In sharp contrast, other special-interest groups retain their respective identifiable labels i.e.; “women,” “Hispanics,” “Latinx,” “Asians,” “Native Americans,” “Transgender,” and “LGBTQIA+.”In other words, unlike blacks, the foregoing groups are respect-worthy enough to warrant their own distinct classification. The “system” is satisfied that it is sufficient to throw blacks into the pile under the generic heading of POC; 3) A whole new pantheon of individuals has been inserted into high-visibility roles in politics and the media that used to be reserved for individuals who had earned such stature by championing the cause of black uplift. Many if not most such persons in the media appear to be of mixed-race as was Obama, and all are paid for their services and representation by components of the system. Race men and women, including civil rights advocates, have been replaced by persons who are no doubt technically well-qualified for the positions they hold but are nonetheless not beholden to black people as a collective for anything of value to them. As a result, none of them are outspoken advocates for black uplift, nor do they champion our cause. They are, for the most part, merely black or colored versions of their white, Hispanic, Asian, or other counterparts, and they spout the same company line or narrative of the entity that employs them. On the other hand, black politicians owe their allegiance and substance to the particular party to which they literally “belong.”
What happened as a result of the foregoing transition is that blacks have been supplanted from our position as the largest minority group in America by the combination of Spanish-speaking immigrants who together are now classified as “Latinos.” Accordingly, blacks have been demoted to a sub-group within the general classification of “minorities” or people of color. The bulk of any concessions made to minorities is now proportioned to Latinos, and blacks must share the residue with less-numerous Asians, Middle-Easterners, and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean islands. “Native Americans” are in a preferred class by themselves.
There was a time when the likes of Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Whitney Young (NUL), A. Phillip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Dr. Martin Luther King (SCLC), James Farmer (CORE), Malcolm X (Nation of Islam), and Stokely Carmichael (SNCC) were the go-to persons to get perspectives about their black American constituency and its concerns. The acknowledged and accepted role and responsibility of such persons were to “speak truth to power” on behalf of black people throughout America. In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s declaration that his election as President signaled the beginning of a “post-racial” period in American history — by implication that “racism was now a thing of the past,” the black collective in America no longer has any recognized leaders or spokespersons capable of effectively championing its cause.
For all intents and purposes, blacks have been reduced to an afterthought among the citizenry, and our issues are no longer relevant, worthy of concern or of particular interest.
Race-champions have been replaced by a plethora of elected officials (some old, some new), and an array of journalists and other media types who only happen to have been born into the African race. Few if any of them have a history of “race-work” or even membership in any identifiably black uplift organization. They can be seen and heard daily on major media networks and are readily recognized by the viewing and listening audiences. However, their articulateness and intelligence are not used to either uplift or advance blacks collectively. Despite the dangers inherent in the situation as I have described in this paper, there is no credible organization or effective organizational effort among blacks that has the potential to fill the void. We suffer from a potentially fatal disease that I call “Lone-Rangerism.” That being, an inability or unwillingness among would-be or “wannabe” black activists and spokespersons to join forces and resources in an effort to build ourselves into a force capable of accomplishing what our Race needs in order to avoid becoming victims of genocide – such as what happened to Native Americans in this country after the importation of captive African labor made them obsolete.
WHO out there is willing to take the lead in correcting this situation; WHERE can you be found; and HOW can you be reached?