The State of Black America — Part Two: The Crisis of Black leadership


The post-civil-rights era can be best described as a massive political vacuum existing in the black community. Much of the militant black leadership has been bought off, killed by police violence, demoralized, or imprisoned. However, the black middle class has grown tremendously since the end of the black revolt. The end of Jim Crow afforded them the space to capitalize socially, economically, and politically, leaving the black working class and poor to face the onslaught of the neo-liberal agenda.

Norman Kelly, in his book The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics (2004), described the HNIC syndrome as follows: “This is a condition in which self-appointed leaders hijack the political process by somehow appealing to blacks’ sense of collectivity, while having an agenda that is mostly about themselves, making themselves the leaders.”

The HNIC syndrome is best exemplified by multi-media personality Tavis Smiley. Smiley’s talk show is sponsored by the infamous Walmart corporation as well as the former right-wing commentator on America’s Black Forum, Armstrong Williams. Williams is also on the payroll of the Bush administration, coming out as its number one cheerleader. We are witnessing the enrichment of these false leaders, carrying out the corporate agenda, while posing as spokespeople for the various political strains of thought in the black community. The most strident example of the syndrome is Andrew Young, a former aide to Dr. King, cashing in his civil rights movement credentials to become a corporate shill for Walmart and Nike.

Even those on the so-called “left” are under the spell of the HNIC Syndrome. The ascendancy of Al Sharpton, founder and leader of the National Action Network, has seen him go from being an isolated political enigma in the mid 80’s to becoming New York City’s Democratic Party powerbroker and superstar political free agent. What distinguishes Sharpton from others in the black leadership is his consistent opposition and organizing against police violence in the black community like the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases.

Sharpton’s failed Democratic Party Presidential primary campaign in 2004 gave him a national spotlight. His rhetorical showmanship, left-populist message, opposition to the war in Iraq and mobilization against the electoral coup of 2000 in Florida gained him new fans and admirers. However, Wayne Barret of the Village Voice exposed Sharpton’s link to Roger Stone, a GOP organizer and Bush ally (“Sleeping with the GOP”, 2/5/04). This posed serious questions as to who was financing Sharpton’s campaign and organization.

As a political free-agent, not accountable to the black community, Sharpton can be bought and sold. Last year Sharpton came out in support of the failed bid to build a new sports facility on the west side of Manhattan for the National Football League’s New York Jets, a campaign pushed by New York billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg in an attempt to secure the 2008 Olympics in New York. The project would have displaced hundreds of residents in the area and provided corporate welfare for New York Jets. The week of Katrina, in which Sharpton correctly blasted the government’s slow response, the National Action Network was slated to give awards to Walmart and Tyson Foods, both companies are being sued for civil rights violations.

We need a political movement
In recent years, we have seen electoral shifts in the black community. The total political disenfranchisement of the black working class and poor, highlighted by the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections and the decades of abuse under U.S. capitalism and “democracy,” leads to a correct distrust in the political process and its elected officials. It has also led to a greater sense of cynicism about political change within the black community, a sentiment that must be overcome in the struggle to eradicate racial and class oppression and illuminate a new vision of society based on human need.

Given the lack of a viable political alternative to the Democratic Party, which is a corporate party, and the right wing agenda of the Republican Party, the black community continues to give tacit support to the former party of the southern slave master. The past few elections have seen part of the black middle class joining and voting for the Republican Party. In 2000 8% of the black vote went for Bush, and in 2004 this rose to 11%, far smaller than the black vote for the Democratic Party, but nonetheless significant. This swing has been led by the conservative leadership in Black churches and clergy like T.D. Jakes.

There are a number of black clergy, like old stalwarts Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, representing the liberal wing of the Black clergy leadership who have spoken and organized around issues like the right of return and democratic voting rights for Katrina survivors in New Orleans, and verbally defending gay rights, but the conservative black clergy leadership are now the dominant trend within the black church. T.D. Jakes and other conservative black clergy received federal grants under Bush’s “faith-based” initiative that looks to religious organizations to provide social services instead of the government. Jakes and other clergy were selected by Bush to operate a post Katrina fund worth $20 million in privately-raised funds that would be distributed through their faith-based institutions. This is part of $110 million raised by George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton after Katrina.

The church has been a historic pillar in the black community, socially, politically and spiritually. But with the lack of a sustaining political mass movement that would demand accountability of its leadership, the Black church leadership has enriched themselves with multi-media production companies and stadium-sized churches. The churches have become money-making operations, devoid of any real social justice component. Their conservative agenda is a conduit to the right-wing Christian Coalition’s agenda, with which they agree on a number of issues such as opposition to gay marriage.

In contrast, Martin Luther King was influenced by events and social struggle on the streets. He was basically penniless at the time of his assassination when he launched the multi-racial Poor Peoples Campaign to combat racism and poverty in the north and throughout the nation. At the time of his death he was speaking out against U.S. militarism, Vietnam and the ideals of capitalism.

The lack of militant leadership in the Black community has created an extreme vacuum. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is attempting to fill that position. NOI organized last fall’s Million More Movement march where Farrakhan’s new left-populist rhetoric was on display. He also participated in the April 1st protest rally for residents’ rights to vote and reconstruct in New Orleans.

Despite this verbal turn to the left, the NOI still has a top-down, undemocratic structure, an ultra-conservative position on social questions, a cult of personality, and a pro-black-capitalist position. The recent message by the NOI and Farrakhan reflects the anger within the Black community, but it speaks more to the crisis facing the NOI. Their membership numbers are dwindling with an estimated 20,000 people remaining in the Nation of Islam. The vast majority of African-American Muslims have embraced orthodox Sunni Islam joining organizations and mosques like the Islamic Society of North America. Along with a number of African Americans returning back to the traditional Black Churches, the NOI is in danger of being irrelevant.

We need a party of the Working Class
The need for a political alternative to the two-party system is paramount. The lesser of two-evils argument that besieged the last two presidential campaigns, used by the black leadership to justify a vote for the Democratic Party, has no basis when we study the history of the black experience through slavery and Jim Crow up to today.

The Democratic Party defended and profited from chattel slavery and white supremacy in the south for 350 years. The gains made during the civil rights movement came out of blood, sweat and tears of the working class and youth, particularly the black working class and poor. Under the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic Party sought to hijack and derail the Civil Rights movement.

The exhibition of the social power of the black working class and youth in the south brought huge pressure to bear on the establishment. However the denial of basic democratic rights for U.S. citizens in the south was also an embarrassment for U.S. imperialism during the cold war with the Soviet Union. African heads of state were speaking out against U.S. racism in the United Nations. The fact that a sector of U.S. big business found Jim Crow counter productive for U.S. imperialism contributed to Jim Crow’s defeat.

The Democratic Party has sought to lead social movements to incremental reforms instead of a radical political alternative to racism and capitalism. The agenda of the Republican Party under Bush, tax breaks for the rich and war in Iraq, couldn’t be executed without the compliance of the Democratic Party. The “friends” of black America, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, implemented austerity measures such as cuts in social spending at the same time as increasing corporate welfare, undercutting the gains of the civil rights and black power movements. This set the stage for the right wing backlash of Reagan-Bush I and Bush II.

It will be through social struggle by the working class, people of color and the poor that genuine political candidates and a party of the working class will emerge. Earlier this year it was announced that the South Carolina Labor Party was launching a campaign to collect signatures for statewide ballot access. South Carolina’s conditions are stark. It’s a “right to work state,” with the second lowest union density in the country and in the past five years 76,000 manufacturing and textiles jobs have been lost. It is the home of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422, which has a black leadership. The longshoremen conducted a successful campaign against the scab outfit Stevedor on the docks and fought back against police violence during the campaign.

The South Carolina LP initiative seemed to us like an exciting opportunity though unfortunately it seems to have been derailed due to a number of factors. This campaign could have been an important example of a local independent workers’ electoral campaign. It could have been an important stepping-stone to politicizing the various issues facing the working class, particularly the black working class. For such a campaign to be successful it needs to organize in the community, workplaces and campuses around the need for union rights, defense of health and pension benefits, a national healthcare system, affordable housing, free education and decent jobs with a living wage. Representatives elected on the labor ticket should receive the wage of an average worker. These are the political points that a movement and campaign can be built on, with the vision of building a national workers’ party.

Despite the apparent setback in South Carolina, other opportunities to advance independent working class politics will arise in the next period.

A Program against Racism and Poverty
In recent years there has been a debate among activists, intellectuals and commentators, as to who will lead a struggle against racism and poverty in the black community. Two years ago, Bill Cosby made reactionary comments blaming the black working class and poor for its perpetual plight and advocating that the black middle class lead the uplift of black workers and youth. It’s not a new discussion; the social position of the black middle class with its desire to assimilate into the established political order, defending the values of capitalism, makes it incapable of leading a sustained movement against racial and class oppression.

To change the state of Black America will require a movement of the working class and youth, particularly the black workers and youth, because of their potential social and political power. We need a mass movement that is multi-ethnic, gender balanced, democratic, accountable and politicized, learning the valuable lessons from the civil rights and black power movements.

As we have witnessed, big business and its two parties will always seek to take back what they were forced to give up because of militant social struggle by workers and youth. In order to permanently uproot the seeds of racism, poverty and war, we need a system change. As Martin Luther King stated in 1966 “We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with Capitalism…Maybe America must move towards Democratic Socialism.”

Program against Racism and Poverty

  • Free national healthcare, childcare system.
  • Abolish tuition fees; create free high quality public education for all, from pre-school through college.
  • Full employment with a living wage.
  • Shut down all military recruitment centers on our campuses and communities; build training, employment, education and cultural centers.
  • Cancel the national debt with no payment to big investors. Use money to rebuild the inner cities and the infrastructure under union conditions and wages. Build schools, hospitals and affordable, decent housing.
  • Defend immigrant rights; papers for all.
  • End police brutality and harassment through labor-community committees to control all aspects of public safety.
  • Abolish the death penalty.
  • Break with the two-parties of big business. Build a workers’ party.

    Hurricane Katrina Program

  • The right of return for Katrina survivors.
  • Full care and compensation for Katrina victims.
  • Initiate a massive public works program to rebuild and re-employ the Gulf.
  • Stop racial and class discrimination in relief, compensation, rebuilding and policing.
  • Stop profiteering off tragedy!
  • Pay for rebuilding by ending the war in Iraq and taxing big business.
  • Full democratic voting rights for Katrina survivors in New Orleans.
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