The Relevance of Modern U.S. Black Leadership Jesse Jackson had strong words for Mexican President Vicente Fox after Fox's controversial comments about black Americans. Hear a discussion on the relevance of modern leadership in the African-American community.
NPR logo The Relevance of Modern U.S. Black Leadership
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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton say Mexico's President Vicente Fox should apologize to African-Americans for saying Mexicans take jobs not even blacks would want to do. Both ministers went to Mexico to tell Fox that African-Americans were outraged. Earlier this week, we ask our roundtable guests whether blacks were served by all the time spent on this issue. Columnist Nat Irvin had this response.

Mr. NAT IRVIN (Columnist): I mean, how could that possibly be as important as some of the challenges that we face here at home? I don't see it. Now I may be wrong, completely, with that, but I just think this is a matter of get in the cameras, it's manufactured outrage, it will have no meaning whatsoever to the vast majority of black people and the strategy that people will adapt for themselves for how they will live into the future. It will mean nothing.

GORDON: We decided to take a closer look at what Nat calls manufactured outrage and to also look at the state of black leadership in this country. Joining us now are Robert Smith, professor of political science at San Francisco State University and the author of "We Have No Leaders." And in our NPR West studios, political analyst and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Gentlemen, I thank you for joining us. It's greatly appreciated.

Earl, let me start with you. One of the things that we want to make sure, we are not striking out specifically against Reverend Jackson and Reverend Sharpton, but we wanted to take a closer look at the idea of whether black leadership is failing, whether or not they are, in fact, in tune with much of black America in dealing with the issues of import to the majority of African-Americans in this country. What's your thought?

Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (Political Analyst, Commentator): Well, two things. Number one, even when you use the term black leadership, that's a misnomer right there. That's a heavy burden, really, to put on any group. When you really think about it, we don't say the Latino leader, we don't say the Asian-American leader, we don't say the Jewish-American leader, certainly we don't say the white leader. We just had an election in Los Angeles. Antonio Villaraigosa is now the mayor of the city. And even though certainly he's an important elected official, no one says that he is the Latino leader for all of America.

So we come back to black leadership. When you look at it, we have all kinds of shades and grades of points of view, opinions. We have different classes, we have different religious groups and interests. We span the spectrum in terms of our community. We have different organizations that meet different kinds of needs, both nationally and locally. So, essentially, that leader, or leadership, I should say, is really diffuse and dispersed and there are a lot of different areas I think where leadership, such as it is, both local, state and national can step up to the plate. So, again, it's really a huge burden just to say we have the monolithic one-dimensional, one leader or one size fits all. I think it spans the spectrum, and that's the way it should with African-Americans, just like with any other group.

GORDON: Yet, Professor, that being said, many of these people have taken on, quite frankly, the mantle of leadership, at least they are ofttimes in the fore of issues of import. I pose the same question to you. Do you believe, based on what you have seen in the last few years in particular, whether these groups, organizations and people are servicing the needs and wants of the African-American community?

Professor ROBERT SMITH (San Francisco State University): Well, I think they're trying to, but I think they face--African-American leadership, African-American people face a very, very difficult situation at this time. The agenda of black America requires, to put it in simple terms, liberal progressive reform. And the present political climate, the control of the national administration is not hospitable to those kinds of changes. So I think for that reason, you find African-American leaders engaging in this kind of, to use the phrase your guest used, manufactured kinds of symbolic issues because they really cannot deliver on the substantive agenda.

GORDON: Earl, one of the things that's interesting and a number of people talk about present day is that unlike the civil rights days, there isn't necessarily that one issue that sticks out and is across the board something that all African-Americans grapple with and are concerned about present day and that because of that, leaders are finding it harder to pin a particular issue down and carry the flag for it. Any credence in that?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yes, I think there is. When you go back in time and you look at the '60s, it doesn't make any difference whether you were conservative, doesn't make any difference whether you are a liberal, doesn't make any difference whether you are a radical, doesn't make any difference whether you are a communist. If you are an African-American from top to bottom, there was uniform agreement on one thing: Legal segregation was bad, it had to go. It didn't make any difference what your point of view. So there was a unifying force. There was, so to speak, an enemy out there that everybody could agree on that needed to be attacked and needed to be eliminated, i.e., legal segregation.

Now it's gotten much more complex as we move into the 21st century. Now you have so many issues out there at the national level and the local level, all the way from HIV-AIDS, failing public schools, certainly unemployment, the criminal justice system, young African-American men that are falling beneath the cracks as at-risk youths, issues of gender now. You know, these things weren't front and center 30 or 40 years ago. So now that suggests, once again, it can't be a "leadership", quote, unquote, where one size fits all. The issues are so dispersed, so diffuse and so impacting on specific groups among African-Americans, you're going to have to see and you are seeing different types of leaders, different kinds and brands of leadership and leaderships pointing specifically now at those specific needs. So that's where we're--many people are saying, `Well, wait a minute, have the leaders failed? Is the leadership failing?' Not so much the failing, it's just the issues have changed and the times have changed.

GORDON: Yet, Professor, what I hear as I travel across the country, and then pick up on your point, is that many people have said to me, `I don't want another summit. I don't want to see another meeting. I don't want to see another group of black, quote, "leaders" stand up before us and say that they've met without a real agenda and anything moving forward' and the criticism is that they just want to find headlines.

Prof. SMITH: I think there's something to that. But back to Earl's point, I think, in general, that's correct, but there's something--the black leadership has recognized since the end of the civil rights era, indeed, before, that the core issue, the central issue confronting the African-American community is joblessness--jobs, jobs, jobs. Most of the problems of the black community as a community flow from this high, persistent level of unemployment. The march on Washington in 1963, after all, was a march for jobs and freedom. And the target since then has been full employment, full employment. It is very, very difficult to get the political system to deliver on that objective, but I think that is the primary item on the African-American agenda that has to be addressed by the black community and its leadership and by the political system.

GORDON: So, Earl, could not we take an issue, a quagmire like the economic situation, the job situation for the black community and have these disparate leaders come together, forge, as they have ofttimes said they would after these summits and these meetings, and I've attended many of them, an alliance to tackle a particular problem like the one the professor just outlined?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, that's the ideal. Certainly, when you look at the dire strait of our economic plight, especially with young African-American males, I mean, double and triple the unemployment of young white males, I mean, obvious case can be made that that's a point of attack that should be a unifying force for all. I would also probably add a couple of other things, too. I think also we've got a serious, serious problem with the criminal justice system. You've got one million African-American men, and increasingly women, behind bars in this country. And also HIV-AIDS; huge problem that has resonance not only locally but nationally in our community.

So once again, the problem, Ed and Robert, is, yes, there are some big-ticket, hot-button crisis issues there, not just one, but I think a multiplicity of those issues. And, yes, in theory, you can bring the leadership together, different organizations, to rally around those issues, but the problem is, as you said before, I don't want to go to another summit. I don't want to go to another meeting. I don't want to go to another planning session where we got some camera action, some reporter's notepads but nothing comes out of that. I just simply think this: No matter whether it's a big-ticket issue or a little-ticket issue, what's going to have to happen is local leadership--and much of the leadership now is being framed, as issues are, at the local level--I think there, that's the starting point for engaging a larger number of African-Americans around an action program on these issues, not...

GORDON: And frank...

Mr. HUTCHINSON: ...necessarily nationally.

GORDON: And frankly, that's always been the case when we've seen true movement. Professor, do we perhaps too often romanticize black leadership of the past?

Prof. SMITH: I think to some extent, but black leadership of the past, from the NAACP from its beginning and then the leadership of Dr. King, had a strategic plan, a strategic objective. And that was worked on and developed year after year after year until it reached fruition. Black leadership today does not have that kind of strategic plan. It's not working day by day, year by year, using multiple methods to achieve an objective. They don't really have--excuse me--have an agenda. I think that agenda is--what should be on that agenda is reasonably clear and then pressure, pressure, pressure using a variety of methods, variety of tactics, has to be brought on what really is a hostile political system at this point. So we need a summit. We need a summit to develop that kind of collective strategy. I don't know whether it can be done, but that's clearly what is needed.

GORDON: And, Earl, quickly for me, if you will, if we take these people individually and organizations, like the NAACP, the Urban League, the SCLC and others, is it fair to say as a community--and we look at the dire straits you talked about--is it fair to say to these folks, whether you do it collectively or individually, you've got to get in gear and move a little quicker than we've seen?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I think it is, because let's face it, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did go to Mexico, they did meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox. They did pose themselves as a voice of black America. So if that is indeed the case and the NAACP, SCLC and the Urban League and others do pose themselves as the authentic voice of black America, rightly or wrongly, correctly or incorrectly, I think then that brings a responsibility on their part to indeed be that voice, engage the political structure, the economic structure and indeed serve, at least to the extent that they can, the needs and the interests of a broad spectrum of African-Americans. I don't think it's an unfair demand since they've put themselves in that position.

GORDON: All right. Professor Robert Smith of San Francisco State University, the political science department, and author of "We Have No Leaders," and political analyst and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, thank you both for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

Prof. SMITH: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, a special roundtable, three remarkable individuals using art, photography and history to push race relations forward in this country.

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