City Journal

John H. McWhorter
Why Blacks Don’t Need Leaders
We won civil rights long ago. Now success is up to individuals.
Summer 2002

During a recent CNN special marking the tenth anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, playwright Anna Deavere Smith asked, “Why is it that there has not arisen a single young black leader in the past 30, or even 40 years?” You hear that question often among blacks. Truth is, though, never again will there be a “Black Leader” in the mold of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X—and this is a heartening sign of progress. Black America has done so well since the big victories of the civil rights era that it no longer needs the kind of leadership that was vital in those years of struggle. These days, most blacks are way beyond the injustices of the past and are taking advantage of the opportunities of the present.

Of course, some might consider Reverend Jesse Jackson a Black Leader of the old heroic kind; Jackson himself clearly believes this. But let’s be honest: leadership isn’t really what Jackson is about. In a hundred years, textbooks will describe Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s pivotal efforts in the desegregation struggle and MLK’s historic work to outlaw discrimination, but just what has Jackson done for the black community?

Jackson’s real success has been to benefit himself and his cronies. He burst onto the scene back in sixties Chicago with Operation Breadbasket, a classic civil rights initiative that, through black boycotts, forced small companies to discontinue whites-only hiring policies. Before long, though, a man whom many saw as a potential savior for African Americans had become one of America’s most accomplished shakedown artists. As Operation Breadbasket morphed into People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) and other advocacy groups, Jackson fine-tuned his modus operandi. The reverend publicly accuses a firm or organization of racism, usually on the thinnest of pretenses. As payment for backing off, he demands first that the accused throw business to black entrepreneurs—“friends of Jesse,” everybody calls them. Then the accused must make a hefty payment to Jackson’s Citizen’s Education Fund, a PUSH subdivision. Afterward, the “friends” who’ve benefited from the transaction pony up with their own contributions to CEF.

Corporate mergers, worth billions to the parties involved, became a particularly lucrative income source for Jackson’s racket during the Clinton years. Since certain big mergers require federal approval, Jackson could hold them up by declaring racism present. He could basically name his price. Before AT&T could merge with TCI in 1999, for example, it had to make a $425,000 “donation” to CEF to get Jackson off its case about its supposedly discriminatory hiring practices—of which there wasn’t the slightest evidence.

If what Jackson does with all this ill-gotten money is “leadership,” black America doesn’t need it. His CEF purportedly dedicates itself to “the education of voters and the promotion of full participation in the electoral process.” Sounds worthy, but a look at CEF’s finances reveals something far less noble. In 1999, out of the $10 million CEF brought in for itself from various corporations, almost $1.4 million funded Jackson’s traveling expenses, while another $1.3 million bankrolled “consultants”—some of the “consulting” reportedly including money to support the reverend’s mistress and his love child. The biggest chunk of CEF’s 1999 expenditures—more than $4 million—fueled the shakedown efforts themselves.

Jackson defenders may justify this sleazy enterprise by saying that, however disagreeable, it sends contracts and business deals black entrepreneurs’ way. But this only makes sense if white America remained staunchly opposed to black success—an idea counter to life as most of us live it in 2002. In fact, Jackson’s scheme is affirmative action at its worst, denying black businessmen the only way to learn to survive in the rough-and-tumble economic world: serious, no-net competition. Jackson suckers black firms into the game for the moment, but it’s a quick fix, since the companies’ successes are based on the race rather than the qualifications of their owners and are unlikely to last.

What else does Jackson’s “leadership” rest on? Like a racial ambulance chaser, he’s sure to pop up before the cameras any time some race-based fracas presents an opportunity for indignant speech: a suspension meted out to out-of-control black high schoolers for brawling in the stands during an athletic event, say, or Cornel West’s huff when Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that he do some real academic work. Anytime there’s an international crisis, too, Jackson thrusts himself into the middle of it, counting among his friends the likes of Yasser Arafat and other despots. But these self-aggrandizing machinations have left behind not a single successful project that would improve black lives beyond the boardrooms of his friends.

The example of Reverend Al Sharpton, who openly covets Jackson’s mantle as “the” Black Leader in America, is even more depressing. Where Jackson can at least generate a certain presence in a room, the cartoon-like Sharpton is impossible to take seriously, ever. After nearly two decades of preening on the public stage, heading up an organization—the National Action Network—even vaguer in its mission than PUSH, Sharpton would be hard-pressed to point to one positive development in black New York, much less black America, that he could take credit for.

For Sharpton, tearing whitey a new one at regular intervals is Doing the Right Thing for blacks. In 1995, Sharpton bogusly accused the Jewish owner of Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a 125th Street retail store, of driving local black merchants out of business. Sharpton speechified relentlessly against the “white interloper,” until a mentally unstable young black man, inflamed by Sharpton’s demagogic oratory, stormed Freddy’s Fashion Mart, guns ablaze, and ignited a conflagration. Death toll: eight; Sharpton: unrepentant. He helped ignite the 1991 Crown Heights race riot with such memorable counsel as “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” Here was a Black Leader inciting a virtual pogrom.

Not exactly “I have a dream.” But then things don’t look all that much better over at the NAACP headquarters. This organization, which did heroic work in overturning the “separate but equal” legal doctrine and once promoted black self-help, has fallen a long, long way. These days, NAACP leaders like Kweisi Mfume and Julian Bond believe that what black Americans need most is to hear how pitiable they are, and that America still seethes with racism.

The NAACP’s search for signs that America hasn’t really changed since the days of Jim Crow becomes increasingly absurd. Recently, for example, the organization has excoriated the major television networks for supposedly not having enough black actors in their new shows. But in the third millennium, the typical household gets dozens of channels beyond the networks via cable, and when you include these channels, television abounds with black faces. Most blacks, of course, don’t calibrate success based on how many “people like them” they see on the tube. For them, the NAACP is a fossil. During the organization’s national meeting last summer, even Bond seemed to sense its historical irrelevance. He crowed that the NAACP was “still the biggest, baddest civil rights organization in the country.” But people only say this kind of thing when they no longer believe it.

To read all this as a crisis of black leadership is to misinterpret what is, in reality, a momentous and wholly positive historical shift. It’s not just the opportunism and moral lapses of Jackson and Sharpton that are at issue—after all, some of the heroes of the civil rights movement weren’t saints either—but whether there’s any need for Black Leaders in 2002.

There isn’t. The civil rights era ended a long time ago, victorious. Blacks once needed a Black Leader like King to galvanize the conscience of the government and the nation, but what’s left to accomplish? Less than a quarter of black families in America live below the poverty line today; by 1995, half were middle-class. Joining the secretary of state and the National Security Adviser, the CEOs of AOL-Time Warner, American Express, and Merrill Lynch are all black, as is the head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The mayor of Atlanta is a black woman, something that would have flabbergasted W. E. B. Du Bois, who suffered naked racism in the city. Jackson, Sharpton, and the NAACP preach that racism still dominates black lives, but this charge doesn’t jibe with how most black Americans feel: a New York Times poll revealed that only 7 percent of black people thought racism was the most important problem for the next generation to solve, and from 1992 to 2000, the number who felt that race relations were improving doubled, from 29 percent to 58 percent.

Clearly, this is no longer a race that requires the strong hand of a unique visionary to guide it to the mountaintop.

True, a minority of black people has been left behind, most of them in the inner cities. For these blacks, who’ve not succeeded in taking advantage of the opportunity offered by 2002 America, there are some marvelous black leaders—lower-case “b” and “l”—showing them how to do it.

Take Star Parker, the 45-year-old founder of the L.A.-based Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education, who brings a stirring message of self-help to poor inner-city communities. She speaks frequently on the conservative think tank and college circuits, and makes the rounds of the television talk shows. Black people too often receive kudos for being “articulate” just for speaking standard English, but Parker really is a deft communicator, talking policy one minute and displaying good old-fashioned mother wit the next.

Her dramatic life story, told in her autobiography, Pimps, Whores, and Welfare Queens, embodies her self-help philosophy. Brought up by parents who embraced the “I’m okay, you’re okay” nostrum that people should be allowed to make up their own rules, she became “very rebellious” as a teenager in East St. Louis, “hanging out with older guys and breaking into homes,” as she told an interviewer. “When I got arrested for shoplifting, my white school-guidance counselor told me not to worry about it, because I was a ‘victim of racism, lashing out at society.’ ” The young Parker bought the “lie,” as she now calls it, “that there was nothing in America for me except institutional racism and glass ceilings that would keep me from getting promoted.” In her late teens, Parker went in for drugs and promiscuity, and soon found herself with a child and hooked on welfare. “And as long as government was there to sustain me, there was little reason to change what I was doing,” she recalls.

Her life turned around when some men she met in inner-city Los Angeles, where she now lived, persuaded her to attend their church. She found its spiritual and moral message liberating. “One Sunday morning, when I was sitting in the back of that packed church, the pastor seemed to point at me,” she recounts. “ ‘What are you doing living on welfare? The government is not your source, God is!’ ” The next day, she wrote county administrators to stop sending her welfare checks. Within three months, she was working a decent job at a food distribution company.

Parker returned to school and got a marketing degree. She launched a newsletter for young black Christians, which became a successful magazine, Not Forsaking the Assembly, grossing nearly $200,000 in advertising revenue yearly. But in April 1992, the L.A. riots wiped out the magazine’s advertising base, forcing it to close. The senselessness of the riots deepened Parker’s conservative worldview.

Parker founded CURE in 1995 to bring the self-help message that had transformed her life to inner-city black women trapped in dependency. Her key concept is “empowerment”: becoming self-reliant—above all, by staying away from government handouts. “The welfare state allows people to escape the consequences of their actions,” she maintains. When asked what the next step of welfare reform should be, Parker says: “complete elimination.” “Return charity to work, to families, and to community-based organizations,” she argues.

For Parker, the inner-city crisis isn’t about race or economics but about culture. And the problem’s core is family breakdown. “Remember,” she says, “70 percent of our welfare caseload was never married, with children.” The triumph of “sexual prowling” as a cultural norm in inner-city communities caused this breakdown, she observes, and welfare reinforces the problem. Blacks and whites must work together, she believes, “to support pro-marriage legislation and look for ways to change the cultural attitudes regarding sexual promiscuity.” Until the culture changes, she thinks, “we will not see welfare ended.” Even so, Parker affirms that the 1996 welfare reform is a big help, and her organization teaches welfare mothers facing the prospect of fending for themselves for the first time how to land and hold on to jobs, and how to budget.

Parker’s model of racial uplift reminds me of Booker T. Washington, and wouldn’t you know it, as I left her office, she handed me a copy of Washington’s Up from Slavery. In his book, Washington observes of the late nineteenth century: “Among a large class [of blacks] there seemed to be a dependence upon the Government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the Federal officials to create one for them.”

Just as Washington urged blacks to “cast down your buckets” and acquire skills and capital starting at the bottom instead of looking to government, Parker sees small businesses as the salvation of inner cities. Her organization lobbies for tax cuts and for loosening the byzantine regulations that hobble small businesses. She crusades for the privatization of Social Security, on the belief that the existing system denies poor blacks the opportunity to invest savings to build wealth for their children and their own retirement.

Parker also holds conferences for black pastors aimed at persuading them to set up anti-welfare initiatives instead of preaching government dependency: many black churches, like religious organizations generally, embraced the “society-is-to-blame” orthodoxy of the sixties. She’s gained some converts. Bishop Charles E. Blake of the West Los Angeles Church of God in Christ first came to a Parker conference touting the usual government-as-savior line; now, increasingly, he sees things her way, and can spread the message of self-reliance to his 9,000 parishioners. But this part of Parker’s mission is a tough sell: she recalls more than one pastor saying, before agreeing to come to one of the conferences: “Don’t have any cameras—what if Maxine Waters finds out I was there?”

Parker can’t understand why Republicans are so inept at wooing black voters. The evangelical churches should be central to Republican outreach to blacks, she thinks, given their conservative leanings on many issues. But the GOP all but ignores them. “Democrats campaign on every block and in every church in urban America, yet the Republicans are almost nowhere to be found,” she observes. Republican ideas can appeal to another sizable—and growing—black constituency, Parker believes: young black professionals. This group, she says, “is attracted to economic empowerment in the form of tax cuts and reduced red tape for small business.” But the GOP hasn’t shown any more imagination in going after them, she says.

Another black leader helping left-behind blacks take control of their lives is Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston. Like Parker, Rivers had a rocky start. His father left the family when he was just a toddler; by his teens, he was running with a street gang. But even as a teen, Rivers had a studious side, and he eventually straightened himself out, spent some time at Harvard and Yale, and wound up with a degree from the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In 1992, the same year the L.A. riots deepened Parker’s responsibility-first philosophy, Rivers experienced a similar jolt in Boston, after a group of black thugs stormed a murdered youth’s funeral, beating and stabbing one of the young men attending. This kind of black-on-black crime, Rivers realized, could hardly be blamed on white racism—often the knee-jerk response of black activists. “White racism as an ideological or rhetorical device frequently functions more like a deflective mechanism to avoid a serious conversation about our own responsibility,” he observes.

The real inner-city problem, Rivers agrees with Parker, is cultural—a “moral crisis,” he calls it, among the “weakest social classes.” Rivers, too, thinks that the anything-goes sexual morality of the sixties had a disastrous impact on poor blacks, since it undermined the family life that nurtures the attitudes and habits that lead to success. “Free love, free sex was one of the worst things that could have befallen a community that was already grappling with overcoming its dependence on the state and welfare,” charges Rivers.

To address this crisis effectively required a paradigm shift in our thinking about black poverty and crime, Rivers argued. Instead of the civil rights emphasis on rights—as vital as that was in the past—Rivers sought to put the spotlight on “the relations within our communities”: on black families “and the importance of parental responsibilities to the health of those families,” on black-on-black violence, on the “stupidity of defining Black culture around anti-Semitism or other forms of racial and ethnic hatred,” on “education and intellectual achievement,” and on the “essential role of personal morality.”

Rivers’s paradigm shift took practical form with the Ten Point Coalition, a group he founded of approximately 50 black ministers, who began to preach the gospel of responsibility, morality, and achievement to young blacks, and to set themselves up as mediators between these kids and the police. Rivers and his fellow ministers forged real trust between police and inner-city communities. Previously, Rivers had been a thorn in the side of the Boston Police Department, constantly accusing it, Sharpton-style, of racism. But as he discovered that not all the kids were salvageable—and that those kids were turning his neighborhood into a war zone—he began to work with the police, directing them to the real bad apples to sweep them off the streets and into jail, while persuading the cops to ease off on the troubled youths he thought he could save.

This collaboration worked. Boston hasn’t had much racial controversy over the last several years. More important, from 152 murders in 1990, with the victims mostly young black males, Boston now has a few dozen homicides a year. During what people now call the “Boston Miracle,” there wasn’t a single killing of anyone under 17, from 1995 to 1998. Rivers gets a big part of the credit.

Black leaders like Parker and Rivers, not the Jacksons and Sharptons of the world, will play the principal role in helping poor inner-city blacks take advantage of the opportunities open to them and helping resolve the interracial tensions that still bedevil us. But their efforts are a mopping-up operation. While the old, outmoded Black Leaders still wait for the revolution, most individual blacks have long since moved on, needing leaders no more than Asians or Italians do.

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