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Gates on Black Leadership

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. contributed an essay entitled, "The Black Leadership Myth. Needed: a politics that looks beyond racial unanimity" to the October 24, 1994, issue of The New Yorker. Citing recent examples like deposed NAACP executive director Ben Chavis, indicted Congressman Mel Reynolds, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy who resigned under pressure, and democratic mayoral nominee Marion Barry (and, for good measure, throwing in Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan as "rhetoricians"), he makes the point that there is a huge gap between "black leaders" and black people:

"Pollsters have long known that there is in black America a remarkable gap between the views of the leaders and those of the led. A 1985 survey found that most blacks favored the death penalty and prayer in public schools, while most black leaders opposed both; and that the percentage of blacks who favored banning abortions was three times that of black leaders who did. On many key social issues, it appears, blacks are more conservative than whites. This fall, twenty-five of the Republican nominees for Congress are black -- many more than ever before -- and opinion surveys suggest that it would be unwise to dismiss this phenomenon.[1] Given the breach between black leadership and its putative constituency, we shouldn't be surprised at the motley company seeking to fill it."

Gates discusses the historic "irreconcilable differences" among black leaders, using as examples the accomaditionist approach of a Booker T. Washington versus the integrationist approach of the W.E.B. DuBois-led NAACP. Furthermore, he states that the accomadationists gave way to black separatists like Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad. "However different in tone Farrakhan's and Booker T. Washington's rhetorics may be," he says, "they are cousins in content."

While discussing the diversity within black leadership, he makes the following observation about the National African American Leadership Summit convened by former NAACP Executive Director Ben Chavis:

". . . Chavis's idea of leadership was informed by a fondness -- or a nostalgia -- for the intoxicating rhetoric of sixties black nationalism. He pointedly convened many of the aging remnants of a bygone era's nationalist vanguard, among them the poet Haki Madhubuti and the black-power theorist Maulana Ron Karenga, and, representing a somewhat younger generation, the academic politician Leonard Jeffries. Chavis, whose historical point of reference remains the Black Power era, thus sought to define the present along hoary assimilationist-separatist lines."

Now, I must confess that my historical point of reference is the same era, and, given I'm the same age as Gates, I'm left to wonder what his point of reference is. Same times, different points of view, I suppose. It's interesting that he would point out the substantial diversity within the leadership group and then focus on only one part of the leadership that Chavis convened. To be sure, aging nationalists were invited and participated, but so did the leaders of many, many other black organizations. Is Gates suggesting that those espousing nationalist views should not have been invited by Chavis?

Furthermore, the dearth of black elected officials at the Summit was because they, except for Kweisi Mfume and Donald Payne among black congressmen, chose not to participate, not because they were uninvited. It's funny that Gates doesn't mention the participation of his good friend, Cornel West! Furthermore, his equation of Madhubuti and Karenga with Leonard Jeffries seems to me to be either uninformed or disingenuous.

Gates does make a useful observation when he says, "With integration, black America has been disintegrating: the realities of race no longer affect all blacks in the same way." This reflects the fact that fully twenty-five percent of African Americans have attained middle-class status (quadrupling since 1967) at the same time forty-six percent of black children live in poverty (compared to sixteen percent for white children) and blacks constitute fifty percent of the prisoners in the U.S. These facts demonstrate why, Gates argues, a strategy of nationalism or black unity can not stand in the face of growing class differences within black America. "The class disparities within the 'black community', says Gates, "are discussed only warily and awkwardly, because they undermine the very concept of such a community."

His conclusion:

"Black America needs a discourse of race that is not centrally concerned with preserving the idea of race and racial unanimity. We need something we do not yet have: a way of speaking about black poverty that does not falsify the reality of black advancement; a way of speaking about black advancement that does not distort the enduring realities of black poverty. Much depends on whether we get it."
Gates is absolutely correct about this. However, given that Gates doesn't put much stock in elected officials, nationalists or even the "Grand Polemarch or Supreme Basileus," and specifically rules out "our vested elites," one wonders who is left.

[1] What Gates doesn't mention is that most of these black Republican candidates are running in districts with large white majorities, and if elected, will be representing their constituents' views, which may or may not be the same as the views of black constituents. The question is whether blacks are moving toward the Republican party in appreciable numbers. When black voters elect a black Republican to Congress, this phenomenon will finally have some significance.

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Meanderings 1.07 -- October 25, 1994