The Crisis in Black Leadership

A black out is in effect. Discussion and action on issues of race, class, human and civil rights, poverty and disparate wealth that were moving to the top of the world political agenda prior to 9/11 are off the table. And many of the people trying to resurrect those issues will probably end up (if they aren’t already) on someone’s terrorist list.

As American life goes, blacks get it worse and different. The current black out is no exception. Blacks, as Alexis de Tocqueville described, are the “enemy within”. If war casualties are high, they may do most of the protesting, thus, they must be controlled more vigorously and specifically than others. Blacks also buy big gas guzzling SUV’s thus they share an interest in cheap gas. But beyond material interest, there are clearly negative consequences for those who do not go along with the government’s plan. They can end up dead or in jail. Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali are examples of what can happen when you diss the plan.

Barbara Lee ? the sole rebel, barely got her voice and photo op of official dissent during the vote giving George Bush II his blank check to wage war. The mainstream media presentation of Lee’s image offers three predictable views ? radical traitor, out of touch yet well meaning liberal and official dissenter. As of yet, those who cast her in one of those three roles have not widely or thoroughly presented the reasoning behind her vote. Lee stood alone while the generally outspoken Maxine Waters, presidential candidate in training Jesse Jackson Jr. and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus were mute. Even John Lewis, one of King’s apostles of non-violence, voted for revenge and violence. And Cynthia McKinney, who while at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, SA railed against US government domestic spying, voted for the war and against the anti-terrorism bill. Evidently, McKinney’s activism is tempered by the militarism of her district.

Then there was John Conyers’ puzzling co-sponsorship (with Jim Sensenbrenner) of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001 which makes legal many of the police state tactics used on a host of radical, left and progressive organizations and people in the US. After passage of the bill, Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush said, “I knew I was casting my vote against J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan Once this crisis is over, they’re not going to be looking for Osama bin Laden or people who look like Arabs. As usual, they’re going to be looking for you and me”.

But Rush’s initial yea vote for war supports pretty much the same thing. Conyers, as did most black caucus members, eventually voted against the final version of the anti-terrorism bill. Only Corrine Brown, Harold Ford and Chaka Fattah voted with the majority. Apparently, Conyers rationalized that co-sponsorship gave him the input to keep a bad situation from being worse. Still, the war powers vote was as Dorothy Love Coates once put it, “the separation line” between the saved and the unsaved. Attempts to portray opposition to the anti-terrorism bill, as nuanced defiance to the war does not move those who abandoned peace to the saved side of the line.

With the possible exception of Lee and a few others, black leadership inside and outside of government – if there is such a thing, have surrendered to white, male leadership. For sure, Cornell West and Al Sharpton got in a one-liner or two about US policy in the Middle East being bad. But for the most part, elite black leadership and organizations are in the pockets of corporate America and know not to bite the hand that feeds them even when they are not being all that well fed. That is unless you take a Harvard-led poor peoples’ movement or a possible presidential run as serious models of defiance. And Bush’s warning of “You’re either with us or against us” makes clear the threat against their meal ticket.

Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP wrapped himself and his organization in the flag repeatedly pledging his organization’s support of the war citing the “traditional patriotism of black Americans”. He quickly rebuked Curtis Gatewood, president of the organization’s Durham, North Carolina branch for denouncing the US plan for military retaliation. Oddly, Mfume raised the ghost of Crispus Attucks to explain polling data that ironically had 71per cent of blacks supporting racial profiling of Arabs or those of Middle Eastern origin.

Jesse Jackson Sr. checked the limits of the black out by suggesting he might go to Afghanistan. But he quickly found out that anything other than support for war and “God Bless America,” was out. He was lampooned from syndicated morning black talk radio to NBC’s Saturday Night Live to the editorial page cartoons. After the sting of the whipping over his aborted trip faded, Jackson put out a column posing the old Nixon/Kissinger line of “peace with honor” and then shut up. That is unless you consider his day late opposition to the anti-terrorism bill as saying something.

Predictably, the most notable criticism of US policy from the black religious community is coming from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, although he has yet to offer outright condemnation of the Afghan war. At a New York event reported in black newspapers across the country, Farrakhan said that American policymakers were “dripping with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe”. He also cautioned the US government to be “careful” not to start a religious war and asked to see the “overwhelming evidence” against bin Laden. Still, neither Farrakhan nor Christian ministers Al Sharpton and Jackson Sr. have much sway within the organized black religious community. The people with the power are the ministers in the pulpit and the deacon boards and ladies’ auxiliaries that support them. And down in the black belt south where WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”) bumper stickers are just as common as Confederate and American flags, black and white Christians have avoided applying the Jesus question to the current situation. Even after Bush II declared war in a church ? the National Cathedral.

Without a doubt, it has always been difficult for progressive voices to get their message out. But civil rights leadership has been noticeably gagged since 9/11. As a result, black Americans, like everyone else, are being propagandized into support of an Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ foreign policy, a war that punishes and kills poor, starving Afghans and the expansion of the very police state they have fought for decades.

Blacks are not politically monolithic. Yet the day before the terrorists’ attacks, the illegitimacy of the Bush presidency was a given in much of the black community. Bush’s most ardent critics were black democratic officials and activists such as Sharpton, Jackson Sr. and even Mfume and his organization. They charged that the 2000 election goings on in Florida and the decision of the Supreme Court in Bush’s favor was nothing less than a coup d’?tat. Sharpton’s possible run for president is pitched as a protest over black voter disenfranchisement. Now, in war, all is forgiven if not forgotten.

Consider that for the past 20 years or so the US has waged a war on drugs/black and brown citizens. The theme of the war is “stop the violence”. Civil rights groups, schools, public officials and others have bought into the theme. Americans have waged a war against themselves, their children, kin and friends. The superficial focus has been on ending gang violence and thug life. In the eighties, (coincidentally the generation where the current group of military enlistees is drawn from) the popular movies were Boyz in the Hood, Menace to Society and Colors just to name a few. The music of choice for young ghetto dwellers and wannabes busters – the much-maligned gangsta rap. The recurring act in thug life is protecting your turf and fellow G’s. If rival gangbangers bum rush your spot and kills a homey, the dissed gang members pile in their rides and go off to shoot up the rival’s hood.

So, what is the difference between the “boyz in the hood” and the boyz in the White House and Congress? Not a whole lot. Americans have been bum rushed into hysteria and the response is like that of gangbangers. Perhaps this explains why one can see American flags flying on the cars of young black men who before 9/11 were the targets of men wearing the same flag. Some fly it in hopes of keeping the man off their backs. But others may correctly see it as America embracing it’s true thug self.

There is a general mainstream media censoring of all voices opposed to thug life. Clear Channel’s list of songs it proposed to ban along with the firing of Davey D at San Francisco’s KMEL- a firing directly resulting from his airing a serious interview with Barbara Lee, was just the beginning of the new media repression. If it does not support thug life, it is not heard. And on those rare occasions when opposition sneaks through, it is ignored, ridiculed or crushed. That is what happened to Lee and Davey D. Nobody in mainstream media wanted her to say why she voted the way she did. Now, the Patriot Act consummates the marriage between corporate censorship and government suppression of speech and dissent. Corporate media will continue to ban from the airwaves anything more complex than fear, revenge, boosterism, flag waving, amnesic recollections of history, foreign policy fakery and emoting.

We Shall Overcome was sung at one of the memorial events. I could not tell whether the song was being sung to evoke the triumph over tragedy through love, forgiveness and redemption or was it just being misused as a violent battle cry. Haitian singer Wycliff Jean, wearing a coat with an embossed American flag singing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song at an earlier celebrity fundraising telethon could have been subtle insurrection. However, the singing of the civil rights standard is more significant in the black out because it is an unambiguous cultural prompt aimed at bringing blacks in line with the war. White Americans singing a song that many once scorned or dismissed has a subtle, yet powerful, impact on the psyche of black people. It exploits black feelings of hope that America can overcome the race dilemma.

With few exceptions, black celebrity voices have been limited to singing, boosterism, patriotic posing and shamming. Since 9/11, Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful” and Whitney Houston version of the national anthem is everywhere while Edwin Starr’s “War” is off the play list. Thankfully, Marvin Gaye’s Star-Spangled Banner, which is the best soul version for purists, gets limited to no airplay. Rapper Chuck D formerly of Public Enemy was able to warn his hip-hop constituents “don’t “believe the hype!” And writer Alice Walker has spoken out against the war but her voice has not been widely heard, at least not in the Deep South. Comedian Steve Harvey, who was scheduled to appear on CBS’s Dave Letterman Show, said he would not “sacrifice his son” to the war effort. After his anti-war remarks, his appearance on the show was cancelled. According to published reports, Harvey said he was afraid to fly to New York while the terrorists’ alert was in effect. But his “Kings of Comedy” bud, D.J. Hugley, while on NBC’s Conan O’Brian night, made a passing remark about a “being black man and understanding racial profiling,” then he nullified his concern as he joked that while flying east, he asked the fight attendant “to check out Mohammed in the back of him”. His remark is indicative of the trend in wartime black comedy to make light of profiling.

A significant percentage of those of the Islamic faith in America are African American. Hugley’s Mohammed could be Muhammed Ali. Of the 5.7 million Muslims in America, an estimated 2.3 million or more are black to include the 100,000 or so members of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. But 75 percent of blacks of Islamic faith are straight up Sunni Muslims. African Muslims in America can be traced back to 1619 – an estimated 10 per cent of enslaved Africans were Muslim. So, in comparison to the 36 million African Americans, a little less than 10 per cent are Muslim.

Intuitively, one might think that African Americans would be inclined to seek solidarity with Arab Americans and Middle Eastern immigrants. This is not the case. The simple explanation for why blacks might be fearful of Arabs is the events of 9/11. Arab men crashed planes into buildings. Of course, with that logic, they should want profiling of whites due to the crime of Oklahoma bomber Tim McVeigh. 9/11 aside, there is resentment of Arab Americans by many blacks who see them as being assimilated into whiteness. Some blacks see the relationship between blacks and Middle-Eastern Americans as one of exploitation. The perception stems from the fact that Middle-Easterners own many of the new businesses in the inner city while blacks still face obstacles to business ownership. And over the years, there has been very little political or social coalition building between racial minorities in the US.

A closer look also reveals a poisonous mix of fear, ignorance, resentment and the illusion of acceptance. Why else would African Americans paradoxically support racial profiling, a tool used against them from the enslavement trade to the present? What other than madness can explain why blacks would physically attack the “lost boys of the Sudan” living in Atlanta, thinking they were Muslims when in fact they were Christians? Just as troubling was the response by the Sudanese men’s American sponsors. The Sudanese were given gold crosses to wear around their necks reminiscent of the Star of David worn by Jews in Nazi Germany.

It is counterproductive to the civil rights agenda and dangerous for black leadership to be silent or supportive of a war complete with a suspension of Bill of Rights and international human rights protections, more spies at home and abroad, a future of more government sponsored assassinations, reliance on more clandestine military and police operations to include (per former Secretary of Army Togo West’s 1994 report) all white or predominately white special operations units with a history of racism and infiltration by white supremacists. Black political goals are now in a deeper freeze by the requirement of unity. And under the heavy cloak of unity is a rightward shift in US economic priorities with policies guaranteeing corporate bailouts at the expense of workers who themselves are in need of a bailout in these hard economic times.

A movement based on representing the poor should insist on US government policies to address those legitimate claims that exploited people around the world have against this country. To that end, black leadership must defy the black out or what good are they? CP

Kevin Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and regular CounterPunch contributor. He can be reached at: