Commentary Magazine


The Question of Black Leadership

The question of black leadership has been placed in sharp focus by a recent series of unsettling and sometimes ugly incidents.

First, there were the highly publicized travails of Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Having scoffed at repeated reports of drug use, and indeed having enlisted, with considerable fanfare, in a “Down With Dope” campaign aimed at the Washington schools, Barry sat without obvious embarrassment in a courtroom while witness after witness attested to his prodigious appetite for crack cocaine and a videotape showed him sharing the drug with a female acquaintance in a hotel room just prior to his arrest by federal authorities.

Although hardly the first American politician to be brought down by addiction to drugs or alcohol, Barry can certainly claim some distinction in his attitude of arrogant unrepentance, a stance which was modified only at the time of his sentencing for conviction of cocaine possession. And just as disturbing as the mayor’s behavior was the generally tolerant, and in some cases supportive, response of the Washington black political establishment. While a few voices called for Barry’s retirement from public affairs, most either maintained a studied silence or actually endorsed the theory that Barry was the victim of a white conspiracy to deprive black America of strong leaders. Barry himself gave credence to the idea of a white master plan to persecute black political leadership in denouncing the American “injustice system” after drawing a six-months jail sentence.

In New York, meanwhile, the trial of three black youths accused of participating in the beating and rape of the Central Park jogger took on a particularly nasty edge when supporters of the defendants began harassing the victim as she arrived at and left the courthouse. Egged on by a motley crew of “community activists” and radical attorneys, the crowd yelled obscenities, accused the jogger of deliberately lying, and chanted, “The boyfriend did it!”—meaning that the woman’s lover had committed the rape and she, to conceal the fact, had falsely accused the young black men.

New York was also the scene of a prolonged boycott by blacks of two Korean-American grocery stores in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The action was launched after accusations that store personnel had struck a black female customer. Unfortunately, the facts remain murky, largely due to a policy of noncooperation with law-enforcement officials and the press adopted by the alleged victim and her attorney (a policy that has became an almost automatic tactic in any racial incidents in New York in which radical black attorneys like C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox and “advisers” like the Reverend Al Sharpton become involved). People attempting to enter the stores were forced to run a gauntlet of jeers and curses, the most obnoxious of which were reserved for those blacks who rejected the notion that a self-appointed “boycott committee” had the right to decide where they did their shopping. Attempts at conciliation (themselves half-hearted) by New York’s black mayor, David Dinkins, were unavailing; it appeared that nothing short of driving the stores out of business would satisfy the boycott leaders.

Then there was the case of Gus Savage, a black Chicago Congressman notorious for his erratic behavior and racialist views. Accused of sexually harassing a Peace Corps worker while in Africa on congressional business, Savage dismissed the charges as a “white media plot.” Savage’s tactics in dealing subsequently with a primary challenge by a strong black opponent were just as tawdry. Indeed, Savage ran a one-issue campaign which obsessively concentrated on his opponent’s having received campaign funds from outside the congressional district—to be precise, money from Jewish sources. Again and again, Savage spoke of “Jewish money,” “the Jewish lobby,” “pro-Israel money.” At one rally he read from a selective list of his opponent’s contributors: selective, that is, insofar as all the names mentioned by Savage were obviously Jewish. Far from leading to his defeat, this strategy carried Savage to victory.

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Then, although it qualifies more as phenomenon than incident, there is the reemergence of Louis Farrakhan as a major and increasingly accepted presence in black American affairs. Some would argue against defining the head of the Nation of Islam as a black leader, but Farrakhan simply can no longer be written off as a marginal figure. Wherever he speaks, he draws large and enthusiastic audiences, and this includes the many college campuses he visits. Black civil-rights and elected officials, who in the past were willing to distance themselves in public from Farrakhan’s race-supremacist philosophy, now allow his far-fetched pronouncements to pass in silence, or even go out of their way to lend credibility to his views. For instance, Farrakhan recently spoke at no less a forum than the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, where he demanded “reparations” for American blacks and accused whites of complicity in black-on-black violence. Another striking piece of evidence pointing to Farrakhan’s elevated stature is the attention lavished on him by the “white” press. This past year both the Washington Post and the Washington Times took the unusual step of publishing lengthy verbatim excerpts from interviews with Farrakhan, thus treating him with a seriousness hardly merited by the ludicrousness of his ideas.

The press, however, is less concerned about Farrakhan’s ideas than it is fascinated by the rise to a position of influence of a man who openly espouses a philosophy of black racial superiority. Farrakhan, to be sure, has lately avoided the kind of extreme inflammatory declarations he used to make. But while no longer openly praising Hitler or describing Judaism as a “gutter religion,” Farrakhan continues to concentrate his appeal on a combination of black chauvinism and anti-Semitism, both of which go over quite well with his largely middle-class black audiences. Addressing a Chicago Black Muslim gathering in 1989, for example, Farrakhan presented a long, rambling account of a Jewish plot to destroy black leadership:

The other night I woke up, oh, about three in the morning. And these words looked like they had grown to be block letters in my brain. They were from the Koran, and these words were: and the jews planned. . . . I have become Public Enemy Number One. And the Jews planned. . . . So now they have declared they will stop at nothing until they have destroyed Louis Farrakhan. . . . The enemy is getting rid of leader after leader. . . . They’re getting ready to make a move on the black community. . . . And the Jews planned. . . . They have an elaborate plan, brothers and sisters, and you’ll be surprised who they’re using.

Nor are his conspiratorial theories limited to Jews. On another occasion, he charged that General Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was conspiring to wage war on his fellow blacks in the guise of a war on drugs.

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Although differing in some respects, the cases listed here contain a number of important common features. First, while the incidents and individuals are routinely described as controversial, there is very little controversy as to the basic facts. By his own, grudging, admission, we know that Marion Barry had a drug problem during his tenure as mayor. And based on overwhelming evidence, we can conclude that the jogger defendants were guilty, that the Korean store boycott is unjustified and racist, that the presence of Gus Savage in Congress dishonors that institution, and that Louis Farrakhan is a black racist.

Second, no matter how damning the evidence, many blacks cling to the notion that Barry, Savage, Farrakhan, the jogger defendants, and others are the victims of white racist persecution, whether exercised through the media, the courts, the federal government, or a mythical world Jewish conspiracy.

Finally, except in rare instances, neither the misbehavior of prominent blacks nor the extreme or paranoid views of their supporters have drawn rebukes from mainstream figures in the black community. On the contrary, such figures have sometimes lent credibility to white-conspiracy fantasies. Thus, in the middle of the Barry affair, Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the NAACP, warned that organization’s national convention of “the vicious assault on black leaders.” Thus, too, among Chicago’s black political establishment, Gus Savage’s strategy was regarded with approval, and the city’s leading black journalist, Vernon Jarrett, referred to Savage as “one of the country’s most dependable black elected officials” and condemned his opponent’s reliance on “outsider” money (a position which might interest the black Democrat Harvey Gantt, whose recent campaign against Senator Jesse Helms was heavily funded by liberal sources outside North Carolina).

In the case of Savage, at least, his anti-Jewish diatribes did provoke the sharp censure of Ron Brown, the black chairman of the Democratic party, and more muted criticism from two black Congressmen, Charles Rangel and William Gray, who had attended a Savage victory rally at which he crowed about his triumph over the Jews. But in general, black leaders inclined to challenge militant elements have learned that there are risks involved in such an undertaking, as evidenced by David Dinkins’s experience in attempting to deal with the boycott of the Korean-owned stores.

Elected largely because of his promise to restore harmony to New York’s troubled racial environment, Dinkins initially dealt with the boycott, his first major racial controversy, by adopting a position of studied neutrality. Eventually, after it became clear that, given the boycotters’ adamant position, “quiet diplomacy” was getting nowhere, Dinkins issued a statement condemning the action: “I oppose all bigotry against anyone everywhere,” he said. “I abhor it. I denounce it.” While Dinkins’s actions did not match the toughness of his words (his administration actually opposed enforcing a court order requiring the picketers to stand at least 50 feet from the targeted stores), his statement was important in identifying the boycott as an act of racial bias.

The response of the boycott supporters was not long in coming. The day after Dinkins’s statement, C. Vernon Mason derided the mayor as a “lover of white people,” who “ain’t got no African left in him.” Predictably, Mason tossed in a bit of anti-Semitism for good measure: Dinkins, he sneered, “got too many yarmulkes on his head.” Yet despite Mason’s unsavory reputation (he was, among other things, one of the leading perpetrators of the Tawana Brawley fraud), few black voices were raised in Dinkins’s defense—or, for that matter, in condemnation of Mason’s slanders. On the contrary, public support for the boycott was announced by a cross-section of the black-community leadership, including journalists, elected officials, and clergymen. Congressman Major Owens, who represents a Brooklyn district, spoke of “these outsiders, be they Koreans or Asians or whites, [who] come into the main streets of our neighborhoods to make money.” The city’s black newspapers endorsed the boycott, as, in most emphatic terms, did callers to black radio stations. One of the sharpest polemics was written by the Reverend Lawrence Lucas, a prominent black Catholic priest. Lucas accused the mayor of having caved into “pressure from the white media, the white economic/political structure, the white federal government, and the white City Council and their Negro stooges.”

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It is true that David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York, remains highly popular among his black constituents, while Mason, Maddox, and Sharpton are looked on by many blacks as a source of embarrassment. Nonetheless, Dinkins is clearly off the mark when he tries to dismiss his militant critics as deriving their credibility solely from the media’s appetite for sensationalism. Al Sharpton has gained prominence because he understands that there is in the inner city a constituency for a politics based on resentment, anger, and race hatred. When issues can be framed as pitting blacks against Asian merchants, the “criminal-justice system,” the white (sometimes “Zionist”) media, or white politicians, then an irresponsible position built on innuendo, conspiracy theories, character assassination, or lies will often find support among large segments of the black population.

The potential constituency for such a politics of race demagoguery was most vividly, and disturbingly, illustrated by a New York Times-WCBS poll which found that fully 32 percent of blacks believed that black politicians were being singled out for investigation, and another 45 percent thought that this might be true. In the same poll, fully 25 percent of blacks answered in the affirmative when asked if they believed that “the government deliberately makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people,” and another 35 percent responded that the charge might be true, leaving only one-third of the black respondents to dismiss the notion outright. More astonishing yet, 10 percent of blacks polled agreed with the incredible suggestion that AIDS was “deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people.”

These bizarre and self-destructive fantasies are by no means prevalent only among the black poor. There are numerous reports of middle-class professionals coming to embrace what Jim Sleeper, in his recent book, The Closest of Strangers,1 has called “ever-more baroque theories of white genocidal conspiracy.” Even more appalling, however, is the role of those prominent blacks who, instead of providing a much needed dose of truth-telling, are actually feeding the notion of a genocidal white master plan against blacks.

Nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than on the question of drugs. According to Farrakhan, “the epidemic of drugs and violence in the black community stems from a calculated attempt [by whites] to foster black self-destruction.” The much acclaimed black film-maker Spike Lee believes “it is no mistake that the majority of drugs in this country is being deposited in black and Hispanic and lower-income neighborhoods.” As evidence, Lee cites a scene from the movie The Godfather in which Mafia chieftains decide that the drug trade will be concentrated in black neighborhoods. Andrew Cooper, publisher of the City Sun, a black weekly based in Brooklyn, contends, “There’s just too much money in narcotics. People really believe they are being victimized by The Man. If the government wanted to stop it, it could stop it.” And for Father Lawrence Lucas, drugs are just one element in a massive white scheme to destroy young black males:

There is an element that finds this a beautiful aspect of the genocidal attitude toward African-American youth. You’re killing them with drugs. You’re killing them with the crime connected with drugs. You send them to jail and eliminate African-American males as fathers. White middle-class Americans are the ones who make the money on the billions spent on law enforcement necessary to keep feeding black and Hispanic youths through the jail mill. It’s a little bit too coincidental not to believe this was orchestrated by a group of people for other purposes.

Most black leaders do not share the opinions expressed by Father Lucas, but they are loath to challenge those who disseminate the clichés, falsehoods, and fantasies which are increasingly becoming normal fare in black discourse. A case in point is the NAACP’s Benjamin Hooks who, while rejecting “white-devil” theories, felt compelled to sympathize with those preaching such ideas by speaking of the “anguished cry of people who really don’t understand how [the drug problem] got started in the first place and why it’s out of control.”

For Hooks, the main problem seemed to be white society’s “absolute indifference bordering on the criminal” toward the drug problem in the inner cities. On this score, Hooks’s complaint that the drug problem became a drug crisis only when it spread from black neighborhoods to the white suburbs has merit. There is also some justice in David Dinkins’s assertion that real outrage over violent crime in New York was elicited only after a young white Utah tourist was killed while defending his family from thugs on a Manhattan subway platform. But the problem here is that blacks themselves, to the extent that they react defensively or with hostility toward attempts to diagnose the black community’s ills, are partly responsible for the larger society’s indifference toward the inner city’s plight. The shabby treatment of Daniel P. Moynihan, James P. Coleman, and other white scholars stands as a cautionary example to those tempted to conduct research on racial themes, especially if there is a danger that the conclusions might clash with the prevailing black position on litmus-test issues like affirmative action.

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Furthermore, those who contend that the debate over sensitive racial issues can only be carried out by blacks must confront the disgraceful attempts to silence any black who questions the orthodoxy of the day. Glenn Loury of Harvard has been called a “traitor” to his race for talking too much about the internal pathologies of the black community, while Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution is routinely described as a front man for white domination because of his attacks on affirmative action and his insistence that blacks adhere to high academic standards. More recently, Shelby Steele, a black critic of affirmative action who, on other issues, tends toward a liberal stance, has been denounced by Hooks as a “lowdown dirty rascal”; indeed, Hooks has labeled all blacks who dissent from the orthodox position on affirmative action as “some of the biggest liars the world ever saw,” and a “new breed of Uncle Toms.”

The opprobrium directed at Loury, Sowell, and Steele contrasts interestingly with the tolerance exhibited toward blacks who, while voicing thoroughly irresponsible and destructive ideas, do so as adversaries of white society. Consider, in this regard, the views on teenage motherhood expressed by the celebrated black novelist, Toni Morrison, in a 1989 interview with U.S. News & World Report:

Q. This leads to the problem of the depressingly large number of single-parent households and the crisis in unwed teenage pregnancies. Do you see a way out of that set of worsening circumstances and statistics?

A. Well, neither of those things seems to me a debility. I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child. . . . And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people.

Q. And teenage pregnancies?

A. Everybody’s grandmother was a teenager when they got pregnant. Whether they were fifteen or sixteen, they ran a house, a farm, they went to work, they raised their children.

Q. But everybody’s grandmother didn’t have the potential for living a different kind of life. These teenagers—fifteen, sixteen—haven’t had time to find out if they have special abilities, talents. They’re babies having babies.

A. The child’s not going to hurt them. Of course, it is absolutely time consuming. But who cares about the schedule? . . . They’re not babies. . . . The body is ready to have babies, that’s why they are in a passion to do it.

Q. You don’t feel that these girls will never know whether they could have been teachers, or whatever?

A. They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, “Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me—I will take care of your baby.” That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. Only we don’t want to pay for it.

Although Toni Morrison is not alone in her celebration of teenage motherhood, hers is probably a minority view. Yet if most blacks differ from her, they have carefully refrained from airing their disagreement in public.

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Ironically, the notion that a qualification for leadership in the black community is a measure of antagonism toward whites and toward the American system in general emerged only after the basic goals of the civil-rights movement had been won. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other leaders of that movement were not bitter critics of “white America,” and repeatedly emphasized their respect for America’s democratic institutions and economic prosperity. A degree of black alienation was perhaps inevitable during the angry last few years of the 1960’s, particularly when it became clear that the disappearance of segregation would not automatically lead to dramatic changes in black economic conditions. Nonetheless, it would have been reasonable to expect that separatist and nationalist ideas—and postures—would fade away as the external barriers to black social and economic progress continued to fall.

Why, then, did this not happen? Of the many reasons, one of the most important is the influence of the white Left. To direct attention to this factor is not to resurrect the old canard about undue Communist influence on the civil-rights movement or on Dr. King. But the fact remains that Marxist ideas and political movements, including Communism, have found a receptivity among black intellectuals and politicians which is unusually high by historical American standards and unprecedented at the present time. This has been particularly true for politically motivated blacks in Northern cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, where the Communist party made inroads in the trade unions, among writers and intellectuals, and in other spheres in which blacks began to participate during the 30’s and 40’s. Ultimately an impressive number of blacks who had been members of the party or had reached political maturity in a party-influenced milieu rose to various positions of leadership, ranging from community organizer to city councilman to mayor to member of Congress.

Again, the point is not that the civil-rights movement was “dominated” by Communists or left-wingers, but rather that the course of black political development was strongly tinged by a Marxian perspective which seeks not the reform of American institutions but their outright rejection. One manifestation has been a marked preference among blacks concerned about foreign affairs for revolutionary Third World regimes over more moderate, pro-U.S., or democratic ones. Thus Gus Savage, a supporter of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign, could still speak more than thirty years later of “the charismatic and brilliant Marxist-Leninist, Fidel Castro, heroic leader of Cuba’s socialist revolution.” Similarly, a well-known New York figure, Jitu Weusi (formerly Leslie Campbell), referring to a 1987 march protesting the killing of a black man in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, said he was particularly pleased to see so many “young people out in the streets with posters of Malcolm X and Mao Zedong.” Another New York figure, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, believes that nationalism and socialism “can walk together more comfortably than nationalism and capitalism.”

In fact, it is difficult to think of a more insidious combination of ideologies than state socialism and black nationalism. By teaching that poverty and inequality derive from the class nature of capitalist society, Marxism provides a ready-made rationalization for the plight of the inner city that is at heart subversive of the idea of personal responsibility and hence demoralizing to the individuals. And despite its superficial message of bootstrap enterprise, black nationalism likewise preaches a message of resignation by drumming home the theme that white racism and the subjugation of “persons of color” undergird the entire structure of American capitalism.

But as Jim Sleeper among others has pointed out, Marxism is not the only unfortunate legacy bequeathed to black America by the white Left. From civil libertarians came the idea that expelling disruptive students from the public schools was racist, as was the practice of screening applicants for public housing; the consequence was to weaken two institutions of crucial importance to the lives of poor blacks. From radical social scientists like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward emerged the idea that blacks should eschew normal politics while attempting to disrupt the system through massive enrollment in the welfare system; the result was to make blacks more dependent on the state while eroding white support for the welfare safety net. From respected liberal social analysts like David Danzig came the notion that it was absurd to “hold the Negro to an extreme and outmoded doctrine of individual merit.” And from radicals and liberals of all stripes came the most devastating idea of all: that society was to regard the black criminal, even the violent criminal, as a victim—of racism, poverty, bigoted police—instead of as a predatory menace to individual citizens and to the health of black neighborhoods.

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Although there is general agreement that crime is a common factor in the deterioration of inner-city institutions—from schools to housing to public transportation to stores—there is more evasiveness and outright dishonesty among black leaders on this issue than on any other. Even those who reject the corrosive theories of white conspiracy find it difficult to accept the premise that black criminals are responsible for their actions. In response to the rape-assault of the Central Park jogger, the Reverend Daughtry could think of nothing better to do than insist that “All of us must share the blame,” since “This is a violent society. We are all guilty for creating it and we all must work to eliminate it.” With the exception of Mayor Dinkins, it was hard to find any black politicians, or educators, or editors, or, for that matter, clergymen willing to denounce the assailants in forthright terms. Instead, New York’s leading black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, published account after account comparing the defendants with the Scottsboro boys (the classic case of young blacks being falsely accused of raping a white woman)—a view with which most of New York’s politically active black clergy seemed to agree.

Other black leaders tend to share Daughtry’s view that the society, and not the individual criminal, is responsible for inner-city crime. For Congressman John Conyers of Detroit, “The root of the problem is a society that economically has no use for these kids.” His fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Charles Rangel of New York, told a Harlem rally honoring Nelson Mandela that blacks here, like blacks in South Africa, understand what it means to be a political prisoner, citing as evidence the large percentage of young black men who have had encounters with the criminal-justice system.

There are, fortunately, other black voices, which straightforwardly identify the criminal as the chief threat to the stability of minority neighborhoods, and who dismiss the excuses for minority criminal behavior whether these emanate from white liberals, black politicians, or the criminals themselves, who often demonstrate familiarity with the latest elegant sociological rationalization for their actions.

Here, for example, is how the black writer Stanley Crouch describes his experience during a stint teaching prisoners at a facility in California:

Every week I would hear something about political prisoners and how the black convicts were but examples of the racism of the country and the double standards in courts, what with “crime in the suites” being far less significant in terms of sentencing than “crime in the streets.” Faced with this group of victims, all of whom were suffering fascist and racist repression, I once asked everyone who was innocent of the crimes for which [he was] convicted to raise [his] hand. No one did. They then went on to say that they wouldn’t be there if they’d had the kind of money the rich white crooks had for better lawyers. I answered that the communities they had terrorized in one way or another were, in fact, lucky they hadn’t had the money.

But blunt words like these are all too rarely encountered, and when they are encountered, the authors are too often vilified by their fellow blacks.

Even when concern is expressed about black-on-black crime, the formula phrases are often vague, ambiguous, lacking in outrage. When, for instance, a group of New York clergymen, including Sharpton and other militants, issued a statement calling attention to black-on-black crime, they singled out as causes violence on television, the absence of gun-control laws, corrupt police, a social climate which condones inner-city crime, and, in the words of the Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, “a long tradition of oppression and racism which teaches us, really, to hate ourselves.” As described in the media, the ministers had not one word of opprobrium for those robbing black stores, selling drugs to black children, or killing black youths.

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Another, and thoroughly depressing, aspect of the debate over the predicament of black America is the wholesale resurrection of some of the most sterile ideas and discredited movements and individuals of the past. Demands that universities establish black-studies programs have been expanded to embrace proposals for “Afrocentric” curricula in the public schools. A crude anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the anti-Jewish outbursts of the 60’s, has reemerged. There is even a Black Panther militia in Milwaukee; its leader sits on the Board of Aldermen, which he uses as a forum to issue threats of violent uprisings unless massive investments are made in black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, ex-Panther notable Bobby Seale was a featured speaker at a recent Washington seminar on racism; Seale told the student audience that he was available to help plan strategy, provide bail money, or “when you need some guns.” And in New York, militant demagogues who gained notoriety during racial clashes two decades ago have reappeared after years of quiescence; prominent among them is Sonny Carson, who having served a prison term for kidnapping, has returned as a Brooklyn “community organizer,” and is now a leading force in the Korean store boycott.

If this recrudescent black nationalism is less overtly menacing than when H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton were leading chants of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” it still stands as deeply subversive of normal black participation in American society. In the demands for Afrocentric education, with its mythical emphasis on Africa as the birthplace of civilization, one detects a mind-set which believes that blacks should regard themselves as something other than American. And the yielding to those demands represents a disturbing departure by the public schools. In the past, attempts to introduce pseudo-history into the curriculum were bitterly fought; this, in fact, was one of the issues at the heart of New York’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis of 1967-69. Since then, many urban school systems have gone from mainly white to mainly, or overwhelmingly, black. Under these circumstances, one can sympathize with certain unorthodox proposals for change. But one also senses a new and damaging willingness on the part of school officials to accommodate to a reduction in standards and the substitution of ideology for history.

There is also a tendency to treat black anti-Semitism less seriously than in the past. This is certainly not due to any decrease in public expressions of anti-Jewish sentiments. From Louis Farrakhan’s ravings about Jewish plots to destroy black leaders to obnoxious clichés about Jewish domination of the media and entertainment industry (voiced by Spike Lee, among others), black obsession with Jewish achievements remains undiminished, even though the Jewish economic role in the inner city, previously said to be the major cause of resentment, hardly exists anymore. While not entirely ignored, the latest anti-Semitic outbursts have not triggered the kind of agonized debates which followed on the heels of previous incidents.

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Yet another irony in this situation is that the confusion and disarray which plague the black community’s racial leadership coincide with the emergence of a growing number of impressive black leaders throughout the key institutions of American society: sports, the military, journalism, education, law enforcement, politics. Of particular interest is the steady increase of black elected officials who represent majority white constituencies, a group which includes congressmen, mayors, and Governor Douglas Wilder of Virginia. That blacks now serve as mayors of such predominantly white cities as Seattle, Washington and Augusta, Maine, is a tribute both to the talent and energy of the individual politicians and to the decline of prejudice among white voters, a trend that has held steady even as urban racial tensions have worsened.

Almost universally, however, the most successful black politicians do not aspire to the mantle of race leadership, as that concept is traditionally understood. “I’m a governor who happens to be black, not a black who happens to be governor,” Wilder has declared, in pointed contradistinction to Jesse Jackson’s description of himself as “a black who happens to be an American.” Clearly, future success in the political world requires a further broadening of the horizons of individual black politicians. At the same time, this suggests that elected officials will play a distinctly less visible role in narrowly defined racial issues than will clergymen, civil-rights officials, journalists, or academics.

Historically, of course, it was precisely the ministers, writers, teachers, and civil-rights workers who both defended blacks against racial persecution and served as the black community’s authoritative voice of morality. Indeed, in the decades prior to the civil-rights revolution, preachers and editors were unapologetic in their strictures against crime, liquor, and “loose living,” and the great black scholars did not shrink from subjecting Negro society to rigorous examination. By contrast, today’s race leadership has largely abandoned the role of moral arbiter for a single-minded focus on the politics of racial resentment.

This is nothing less than a tragedy. For black neighborhoods will not be revived by attacking white society or through affirmative action or ten-point political programs, of either the liberal or conservative variety. The beginning of a solution will come about only when black leaders insist that the lying be stopped: about American society; about whites; about crime, work, family responsibility, and the treatment of women. Of course, moral exhortation will not by itself lift the black poor into the middle class. But unless and until the issue of values is firmly addressed within the black community itself, there is simply no possibility of beginning to grapple with the inner city’s economic predicament, the source of so much righteous but misplaced rage.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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