The Right Breeds Its Own Black "Leaders"
by Walter Fields
There was a time when Blacks who gained prominence on the national stage had earned legitimacy as a result of their untiring advocacy for full citizenship rights for Black Americans or their ability to mobilize significant numbers of our community toward their particular ideological position. Black leadership did now always reflect unanimity among the masses, as the debates around Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey recall. However, there was a sense that individuals who were referenced as leaders had acquired that designation through some process of legitimization by not only those whose interests they claimed to represent but from respect earned from the larger community, and even those who opposed their particular stands on issues. Despite their differences, there was considerable respect between Washington and DuBois; each man cognizant of the tremendous talents the other possessed.
Today we are more apt to ask, "Who are these people?" and "How did they get there?" in looking at Blacks who are now hoisted upon us as our leaders. Clearly in this era, any Black will do as a concerted effort is being made to create a new leadership class that has no real connection to our community or history of challenging systemic racism. It is a calculated attempt to destabilize the Black community by positioning racial reflections that confuse, undermine and further weaken our social and economic position relative to whites. This phenomenon exceeds any simplistic notion of "Uncle Tomism", a characteristic that, while annoying and offensive, lack[s] power. Today, we are confronted with cultural engineering, the development of a class of Blacks for the express purpose of maintaining white privilege.
And this by no means is solely a function of liberal v. conservative ideology, although it often manifests in that manner. It is important to remember that today's partisan alignments are of recent manufacture and are a reversal of the political landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Still, much of the effort to displace civil rights era leadership is not rooted in progressivism but the efforts of conservatives and neoconservatives to position Blacks who will challenge the left and sow seeds of confusion within the larger community; all the while creating the political space for the advancement of policies that erode gains made in previous decades.
It was during the Reagan administration when it became clear that the emergence of a Stepford like group of Black leaders was not happenstance. Arriving at the White House two years after the Supreme Court decision in Bakke v. University California at Davis, the Reagan administration sensed an opportunity to begin weaving an anti-civil rights narrative but knew that white conservatives would have no legitimacy in advancing this agenda. Instead, they turned to two Black men to control agencies that are directly responsible for maintaining equal protection under the law. Clarence Thomas, a beneficiary of affirmative action while an undergraduate at Holy Cross, was chosen to lead and dismantle the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and began to articulate an anti-affirmative action vision. And Clarence Pendleton was chosen to lead the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, all the while casting doubt on the degree to which race and racism affected the apportionment of opportunity. It was perhaps the first real public break with the civil rights establishment.
It is not only in government where we have witnessed this subversion. It has occurred within the civil rights establishment. It was also during the Reagan era when the venerable Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that was central to the advancement of Blacks' civil rights in the 20th century, that its leader Roy Innis made a rightward turn and began to run CORE as an appendage of the right. Even at the height of the civil rights movement, when the "Big Four" civil rights organizations dealt with Democratic administrations, there was an understanding that a firewall had to be maintained between advocacy and partisanship, if for no other reason than to avoid the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Under Innis, CORE has not only become estranged from its traditional allies in the civil rights leadership, it has also positioned itself against the policy preferences of most Blacks – instead articulating a view more aligned with the right.
The Bush administration has taken great pains to position Blacks against mainstream Black political thought, as evidenced by the recent gathering of conservative leaning Blacks at the White House for a briefing with the president. While innocent on its face, and certainly within the prerogative of the president, it was a signal that the White House was committed to elevating its own class of Blacks to supplant existing leadership and elected officials. Playing upon the notion that Blacks are socially conservative, Republicans are now making a narrow play for Black clergy based upon their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and financial self-interest in school vouchers. And the pitch is being made buttressed by federal dollars under the guise of the president's faith-based initiative. It is perhaps the first time that the purchase of Black pulpits has been done in such an overt fashion.
The media also contributed to the elevation of suspect Black leadership by failing to critically examine their origins, in part out of fear of being labeled racist, but also from sheer complicity in the effort to realign the Black community. This continues today as we have witnessed the fawning over Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Since her nomination it appears the media has gone out of its way to suggest that Rice represents a new Black leader, taking pains to illuminate survey data that suggests many Americans look upon her favorably as a potential presidential candidate, and one paper of national reputation even doing a spread celebrating her fashion sense. What we have not heard, seen or read is the story behind her ascension and an investigative critique of her role in advancing the administration's policy in the Persian Gulf. Considering what we do know about her posture in the run-up to war, the news media failed in its responsibility to be relentless in its quest for the truth.
The treatment of Rice suggests, "any Black will do" in being cast in the role of a leader in our community. Our inability to determine who shall speak for us in the long run will do more damage than most of us realize. Allowing others to set our agenda, no matter if they are Black in appearance will only make it more difficult to advance a transformative politics in this nation. We must make every effort to identify, expose, and discredit Blacks who have aligned themselves with forces that are determined to restore the practices and infrastructure of white supremacy.