Black Eugenics: How the Black Mis-leadership Class of the Early 20th Century Supported Sterilization of the Black Poor
The Black Mis-leadership Class is a term usually referring to the race management elite that developed out of the Civil Rights Movement to handle the political and social affairs of the Black masses. This group tailors its world view and policy prescriptions to the demands of America’s majority power elite to the detriment of those same Black masses. The Congressional Black Caucus, The NAACP, The National Urban League, Black petite-bourgeois membership organizations, and the Black Church all work as the ideological and organizational mechanisms of the Black Mis-Leadership Class.
What few realize is that even before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 there existed a Black Mis-leadership class that worked as race managers for America’s power elite. The originator of “race management” as a concept was Booker T. Washington as the tool of the White industrialist class. With the crie de guerre issued by W.E.B. DuBois published in 1903 in the “Souls of Black Folk,” the Black college educated “Talented Tenth” came together to manage the affairs of the less fortunate Black masses and weaponized the idea of “race management,” giving birth to the first generation of the Black Mis-leadership Class.
Though in Black America this first generation of Black Misleaders is much revered by many African Americans today as visionaries and vanguards, they were just as duplicitous, treacherous and damaging to the lives of the Black masses as our current version of Black Mis-leaders.
Eugenics (the theory that people with desired traits should out breed the less desirable) was normal part of American thinking in the early 20th century and was supported by both intellectuals and government institutions. Not surprisingly these theories were almost always steeped in racism and used to explain the socio-economic problems of the Black Community as genetic. What many don’t know is that DuBois’ Talented Tenth, who made up the first Black Mis-leadership class, were often Black Eugenicists who believed in selective breeding and Black population control through birth control techniques including forced and voluntary sterilization of poor Black women. These techniques would be used to purify the race of its “dysgenic” types as a means of racial uplift.
“In Search of Purity: Popular Eugenics and Racial Uplift among New Negroes 1915-1935,” by Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman illustrates the tragic history of how the early 20th Century Black Mis-leadership class fully supported eugenic theory using racial sterilization couched in language supporting birth control to limit the ability of poor Black women to have children. A veritable who’s who of early 20th century Black history from W.E.B. Dubois, Mary McCloud Bethune, Charles Drew and more were supporters of this widely supported Black Eugenics movement to basically rid America of the Black poor. One must realize, in 1966 55% of Black America lived below the poverty line. We can only imagine how high that number was in the 1920s and 30s, particularly during the Depression years. This Black Eugenics policy was not merely a plan for race purity but if implemented to the full desires of that Black Mis-leadership class, it could have meant race genocide.
As Dr. Sherman states:
“The use of sterilization as a method of birth control was a reality for thousands of New Negroes between 1915 and 1935. Calls by Negro reformers to improve the quality of the race often imbibed eugenic language. Thomas Garth, for instance, wrote in a 1930 Opportunity magazine article that Negroes could have no race pride in substandard members of the race. He posited that the race “should seek to eliminate them weed them out and thereby obtain by means of selection a better stock.” Terms like “weeding out” and “eliminating” speak directly to the identification of dysgenics members of the race, and their segregation from larger society through reformatory or prison commitments.”
These Eugenics sentiments were shared by a man who is considered one of the greatest intellectuals in Black American History. W.E.B. DuBois was fully vested in these horrid Eugenics schemes: “[Negroes] are led away by the fallacy of numbers. They want the Black race to survive. They are cheered by the Census return of increasing numbers and a high rate of increase. They must learn that among human races and groups, as among vegetables, quality and not mere quantity really counts.”–W. E. B. Du Bois”
The Black Eugenics movement worked in tandem with racist white eugenicists who had less than pleasant goals in their advocacy of population control techniques. Yet these White racists were institutionally supported and given the ability to speak at functions by organizations like the National Urban League. As Dr. Sherman explained, “Reformers, like Margaret Sanger, connected eugenic better breeding to a larger movement to regulate the poor and stop the rise in crime and illegitimacy.” Furthermore, Dr. Sherman states, “Black and white eugenicists alike linked the “Negro Problem”; however, to black female fertility, which white religious figures rarely afforded divine status”
Black children did not escape from having Black Eugenicists categorize them as “defective,” usually out of spurious reasons related to their poor economic status. The language of the Black Misleaders among that Talented Tenth cadre demonstrates the sheer hatred they had for poor Black Children.
For example, as Dr. Sherman illustrates:
“Even among respected Black reformers and educators, eugenics factored into how they classified Black students’ mental aptitude, behavior, and character. Ione Peak, a black public health and hygiene teacher, made such links between eugenic defects and learning abilities, writing for the NAACP Crisis magazine. Having observed Negro School children, she noted that classroom performance problems grew out of childhood accidents, disease or malnutrition. Yet, Peak used eugenic language and terminology in describing these children as “mental defectives” and determined that they fell “into groups ranging from idiocy to high type morons.”
There are many in the Black community who argue even today that class is not relevant to issues of Black folk, and all the problems stem from racism. Racism is a serious problem without a doubt But, these statements are often made by college educated Blacks themselves to mask their role in the carnage. The farcical thinking that “it’s all us Black folk against the evil White man,” is merely a con game the Black Mis-leadership Class has used to hide their duplicity and complicity with the White power structure to ensure their ascendance while working to ground the Black poor and working class to dust. Though they may not use eugenics language publically today, the Black middle class and Black elite often hate the Black poor more that many Whites. They hate the stigma of being associated of those “dysgenic” types that make up the Black poor.
Class is a major issue in the Black community as this history illustrates. Only those who still want to play the “blame the White man game,” are unwilling to expose the Black elite complicity in the destruction of the Black masses. The history of Black Eugenics should serve as just one of the myriad of examples of how the Black Mis-leadership Class has worked to subjugate the Black poor. When seeing this history we realize that perhaps we should be extolling “Black Lives Matter,” to those Black Mis-Leaders and Black Elites who have been a cancer to Black America for over a century.
One of the most insidious ways the ruling class fosters unending loyalty to their “power elite” enterprise of global management is through veneration of their dead. The media and the chattering class will wax rhapsodic about the generosity and greatness of these towering figures who wielded their power to further the enterprise of American empire in a way that seemed so humane. This process is ultimately a trap for the millions of poor and working class folk scrambling to function in this society. It deludes them from a clear understanding that the American project is premised on protecting capital and the interests of capital. As former president Calvin Coolidge himself admitted, “The business of America is business.”
The latest example of this postmortem lionization started on January 1, 2015 when New York’s well regarded Governor, Mario Cuomo died at the age of 82. As one born and raised in New York City, Mario Cuomo’s administration ruled from my youth to adulthood. He projected the image of the good hearted liberal Democratic patriarch who gave speeches about the duty to the poor while brandishing his “working class immigrant roots.” This type of Horatio Alger mythology is a common trope used to create even more fidelity in the hearts of the urban underclass as if to say, “I’m one you guys, the little people.”
The ultimate hypocrisy of the Cuomo brand as some great champion of the working class is that Cuomo’s administration built more prisons in New York State than all prior Governors combined, at a time when prison construction was quite unpopular with both the citizenry and the state legislature. In the twelve years of his administration Cuomo added more prison beds than all the prior Governors who held his office. One could argue that crime was on the rise, prisons were overcrowded, and the Governor was responding to a reality. What is naive about this interpretation is that it fails to realize that crime is as much a function of policy as the prisons built to house those offenders As this revealing article in “The Atlantic,” entitled “The Prison Industrial Complex,” illustrates:
“Senator Barry Goldwater had used the fear of crime to attract white middle-class voters a decade earlier, and Richard Nixon had revived the theme during the 1968 presidential campaign, but little that was concrete emerged from their demands for law and order. On the contrary, Congress voted decisively in 1970 to eliminate almost all federal mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders. Leading members of both political parties applauded the move. Mainstream opinion considered drug addiction to be largely a public-health problem, not an issue for the criminal courts. The Federal Bureau of Prisons was preparing to close large penitentiaries in Georgia, Kansas, and Washington. From 1963 to 1972 the number of inmates in California had declined by more than a fourth, despite the state’s growing population. The number of inmates in New York had fallen to its lowest level since at least 1950. Prisons were widely viewed as a barbaric and ineffective means of controlling deviant behavior. Then, on January 3, 1973, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, gave a State of the State address demanding that every illegal-drug dealer be punished with a mandatory prison sentence of life without parole.”
Let us understand that Mass Incarceration of particularly poor Black and Brown communities was a strategic tactic used after the urban rebellions and Black Power era when Black people were prepared to force America to come to terms with the sheer brutality they were experiencing at the hands of the police. Moreover, the Black Power movement created an awareness of the horrible inner city conditions Black people who had been left out of the New Deal, were experiencing. Mass Incarceration was not merely a tool of community control, it was a strategy of political neutralization.
In her great book, “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” Naomi Murakawa does an excellent job of illustrating how warehousing poor Black and Brown communities in prison was not simply an agenda of the evil Republicans, but also the imperative of bleeding heart liberals like Mario Cuomo, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden.
What is more vile than Cuomo simply building more prisons is how he actually financed his endeavor. Cuomo used an initiative to create housing for the poor as a method to gain financing for prisons. The initiative was actually put in place the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried as stated in the “The Atlantic,” article referenced above:
“In 1981 New York’s voters had defeated a $500 million bond issue for new prison construction. Cuomo searched for an alternate source of financing, and decided to use the state’s Urban Development Corporation to build prisons. The corporation was a public agency that had been created in 1968 to build housing for the poor. Despite strong opposition from upstate Republicans, among others, it had been legislated into existence on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, to honor his legacy. The corporation was an attractive means of financing prison construction for one simple reason: it had the authority to issue state bonds without gaining approval from the voters.
Over the next twelve years Mario Cuomo added more prison beds in New York than all the previous governors in the state’s history combined. Their total cost, including interest, would eventually reach about $7 billion. Cuomo’s use of the Urban Development Corporation drew criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Robert Gangi, the head of the Correctional Association of New York, argued that Cuomo was building altogether the wrong sort of housing for the poor. The state comptroller, Edward V. Regan, a Republican, said that Cuomo was defying the wishes of the electorate, which had voted not to spend money on prisons, and that his financing scheme was costly and improper. Bonds issued by the Urban Development Corporation carried a higher rate of interest than the state’s general-issue bonds.”
This is the legacy of Mario Cuomo you won’t see on MSNBC or CNN, as they ramble on about how he stood up to the onslaught of the Reagan revolution with nothing but a speech at the Democratic convention in 1984.
To digress, another reason Cuomo should never be forgotten is that we can thank him for the advent of Rudolph Giuliani as Mayor of New York City. Giuliani governed over the city when the police used “Giuliani Time” as a refrain to crack even more skulls. Remember Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo? Most people outside New York City would not remember that Mayor David Dinkins, the cities first and only Black mayor, was running for re-election against Rudy Giuliani in the 1993 Mayor’s race. Democrat Mario Cuomo stabbed fellow Democrat David Dinkins in the back by signing a law in 1989, the year Dinkins was elected, to allow Staten Island to secede from New York City. The issue would be raised in the election in 1993 by Staten Island Referendum. This is the most conservative borough in New York City and is filled with Italian Americans who supported the referendum. Their increased number created the slim margin that gave Giuliani the election, as even stated in the New York Post. So one of the most noxious political figures that plagues Black America to this day is a direct product of the kind hearted liberal Mario Cuomo. Giuliani was supposedly requested to support Cuomo in his fourth term re-election bid in exchange for all of Cuomo’s good will.
Crime is a function of poverty, lack of community capital, and a need to create underground illegal economies where traditional employment avenues become scarce. This is especially the case when urban centers de-industrialize by shipping good union and factory jobs to other locations. The American project has long since abandoned notions of a “Marshall Plan for the ghettoes,” or a New Deal 2.0 to finally do justice to those people left out of the first New Deal. The bleeding heart liberal claptrap of the Cuomos, Clintons, Bidens and Obamas is merely a smokescreen to keep those on the margins believing something will be done. We are now in the age of Neoliberal Capitalism. This is merely a fancy way of saying the government is giving up all its functions and obligations over to private corporations. Government is completely abandoning the project of building human skills among those not previously positioned to acquire them because they’re born on the low rung of the economic ladder. We are moving to the age of American feudalism.
During the weekend of June 7-9 2013 I had the honor to participate on a panel at the Left Forurm 2013: The largest annual intellectual conference of leftists in the United States. The forum was on economic and ecological transformation for Jamaica and Haiti. In the videos below you will view the full panel made up of myself, Haitian Labor Activist Kiki Makandal, Teamsters Union 808 leader Christophe Silvera, speaking on the situation in Jamaica, and Colia LaFayette Clark, of HUERA: Humanism Economy Rights Art. The moderator and facilitator is Cecile Lawrence, leading member and former candidate from the Green Party of New York.
The conversation ranges from subjects I’ve touched on in some of my writing such as Haiti For Sale and The Importance of Haiti. Historical Imperialism, U.S. destabilization, the role of NGOs, neoliberalism, global austerity, and the role of international labor are just a few of the many topics discussed on this great panel. I hope you enjoy and receive some benefit from the discussion.
Ecological/Economic Transformation for Jamaica & Haiti: Part1
Ecological/Economic Transformation for Jamaica & Haiti? Part 2
Ecological/Economic Transformation for Jamaica & Haiti? Part 3
In 1619, the first 19 Africans brought to the shores of the United States landed in Jamestown, Virginia starting the tortured history of what would be the centuries long relationship between Black people and the United States. The nature of the relationship was innately economic and political from the start. Sadly, the organizing mechanisms of the Black American social enterprise since that time have been poorly grounded in sound application of either economics or politics, barring rare exceptions.
Contrary to the inclinations of racists and many self hating Blacks to deem this failure as some innate shortcoming in the Black American psyche, the social and political condition of Black America is a direct consequence of the level of political sophistication and sheer brutality of the tactics that have been used to deny them clarity of vision and planning as a means of rectifying this pervasive cavern they have found themselves in for generations.
This stems from a failure to understand basic key aspects of the relationship of Blacks to America and racism, mostly because the sheer terror used under the guise of racism to maintain the prevailing order has been so atrocious that the political focus by Blacks has been to concentrate on that terror and attempts to neutralize it without truly addressing its root cause.
From the beginning, Europeans did not bring Africans to the Americas because they were racist. They brought Africans to the Americas to expropriate labor from them as workers in an economic system that denied compensation for that labor to maximize return on investment for the presence of those Africans. The function of Black people in America was an innately economic one from the start rooted in a politics that was based on protecting the sanctity of that economic relationship. All the terror and brutality used to maintain that system was purely ancillary to the goal of protecting that economic system of exploiting free Black labor. Yet many Blacks, even educated ones, will say that Europeans brought Africans to the Americas because of racism and White Supremacy. Racism is merely the rationale and tactic used to justify that exploitative economic relationship, and White Supremacy is the subsequent accrued benefit of the successful maintenance of that relationship–in varying degrees–over time.
A perfect example of how these realities are confused can easily be shown by attempting to ascertain from most people what the actual purpose and function of Jim Crow Segregation, which started with the consummation of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, and lasted to the end of the Civil Rights Era in 1968, actually was. Many would say things like: keeping Blacks subjugated, or denying blacks the ability to compete with Whites, or racism/White Supremacy, or fear of Black male sexual potency via White women. In reality, Jim Crow was a purely intentional reaction by White Southern agricultural interests meshed with Northern industrialists to combat the rising political and economic militancy and mutual co-operation of Blacks and poor Whites during the progressive era of the 1890’s with the combined efforts of the Farmer’s Alliance and the Colored Farmers Alliance in order to maintain economic hegemony and cheap exploited labor for capitalist interests in the South, primarily Agricultural but also industrial, with the slow but new development of Southern industrialization. Jim Crow was rooted in economic control, not simply racism and brutality. Those were the tools used to keep the system intact.
Moreover, few people will admit that the main reason for the collapse of Jim Crow starting in the 1930’s, and expanding rapidly into the post World War II era, had more to do with three key factors as opposed to the romanticized notions of how the valiant fight of the ancestors during the Civil Rights Movement brought us freedom: First, the new methods of mechanized agricultural farming technology started to make the need for Black farm labor in the South obsolete, hence the need for the disenfranchisement and related oppression became more about form rather than substance; Second, the rise of Hitler and Nazism made the notion of race based exclusion in the United Stated unpalatable, particularly in the face of Hitler’s ant-semitism; Thirdly, the Cold War era and the fear of American racism being an obstacle to competitive advantage over the Soviet Union in winning the hearts and minds of the newly independent Black, Brown, and Yellow third world would rapidly assure desegregation and ending Jim Crow being an American primary domestic agenda.
As African American political science professor Adolph Reed, Jr. states in his essay “The Color Line Then and Now” found in the anthology, “Renewing Black Intellectual History,” when discussing some of the egalitarian social science and legal strategies to end Jim crow:
“This intellectual enterprise was no more responsible for defeating early-twentieth-century race theory than Charles Hamilton Houston’s and Thurgood Marshall’s legal arguments were for defeating codified racial segregation, probably much less so. Factors like the leftward shift in the domestic political climate in the 1930s and 1940s, the embarrassment that Nazi extremism presented for racialist ideology, and cold war concerns with the United States’ international image were undoubtedly more important.”
An excellent treatise that explains the relationship between the Cold War and the Civil Rights victories we often wrongly think were a result of these romanticized protest activities is, “Cold Civil Rights: Race and the Imagery of American Democracy,” by professor of law and political science, Mary L. Dudziak, in which she states about Brown v. Board of Education: “According to the Justice Department, the interest of the United States in school segregation was that race discrimination harmed American foreign relations.”
This is not to diminish the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who waged moral protest to the brutal and racist treatment of our nations Black citizens. To diminish in such a fashion could have the effect of discouraging the belief in the human capacity to make social or political change. The point is to show that our desires to romanticize certain periods of history, especially dealing with African Americans, lead to a limited and pedestrian understanding of the factors that truly shape events.
The ultimate sign of that demobilization is the over 97% support of Black America for a president whose agenda is to introduce neoliberal privatization of government resources at rates never seen before that will ultimately demolish those same communities that supported him. i.e. Barack Obama.
This is why Black America is in a crisis, because Black politics is in a crisis. That crisis is a product of the place from which Black politics was born and grew. We now need a new politics, if we shall even call it Black politics, that is not rooted in reactionary response to racism, but seeks to foster cross racial coalitions with those similarly situated to crush the barriers to economic equality while allowing Blacks to maintain social autonomy and ideological integrity in recognition of the need for nuance in neutralizing the tool of racism that has been used to distract them from the ultimate problem of economic injustice. This is the work that must be done, but the question is: Who is up to the task?
“Ethiopia will soon stretch forth her hands onto God, that Africa’s redemption shall soon be accomplished…”—a common quote of 19th Century Black Nationalists found in The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, by Wilson Jeremiah Moses.
A major aspect of Black political history stems from a concept that has maintained a profound and lasting position in the discourse of Black leadership, as well as racial diversity discourse relative to Black politicians. The concept is called “The Politics of Redemption.” The politics of redemption is a direct consequence of the perverse relationship Blacks had to White slave owners in the United States upon their arrival after the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Because the African was denied any vestiges of his identity and culture, he was given a new identity by his White masters. His station was defined by his master, as well as his purpose in the context of plantation society. The consequence of this horrid reality created a need for validation from his White master and at times a desire for approval. Hence, the politics of redemption is premised on the need for Blacks to constantly seek the validation and approval of Whites.
It is a doctrine held by many good men, in Europe as well as in America, that every oppressed people will gain their rights just as soon as they prove themselves worthy of them; and although we may justly object to the extent to which this doctrine is carried, especially in reference to ourselves as a people, it must still be evident to all that there is a great truth in it.–Frederick Douglass, 1848 from a speech, “What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?
Upon emancipation, this tragic dynamic manifested itself in Blacks often feeling the need to prove their humanity to Whites, to give evidence of their capacity, and show clear signs of Black value. This is the basis of the politics of redemption. It is premised on the notion that Blacks must always work to show Whites that they are worthy and can redeem themselves from their “wretched African backwardness.” The concept has a more damaging assumption that Blacks must illustrate they can be trusted to govern their own affairs, perform fundamental tasks, and engage like any other citizens.
Besides being terribly humiliating as a construct, the politics of redemption is a bankrupt world view, and an even more repellent political strategy for several reasons. First, the concept is innately defeatist, demobilizing, and counter-intuitive to progress towards human liberation. As long as the oppressed group views its oppressor as the fountain from which all approval and validation comes, there can never be any true achievement of justice based on eliminating the authority of the oppressor in that power relationship. More bluntly, as long you accept as Black people that we need to first “prove” our worth and capacity to white people before they inure us with rights as equal citizens you officially give credence to Whites being the barometer by which your freedom is measured, and furthermore, in what increments your freedom is doled out. Moreover, the politics of redemption is void as a political construct because it causes the type of empty feel good politics that leads to elections of “symbols” of achievement that end up being “examples” of status quo oppression. The presidency of Barack Obama is a perfect example of this. So much aspirational tripe was spewed about how his presidency would not only show America what Blacks could achieve, but serve the other purpose of “redeeming” America from its legacy of racism and slavery. After Obama’s 2008 election victory a most interesting statement was made by a renowned Black Harvard University professor:
Henry Louis Gates Jr. appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s celebratory post-election special. After learning the news, Gates says, “we jumped up, we wept, we hooped and hollered.” It is hard to overestimate the historical significance of the election of the first black U.S. President. For many blacks, and certainly for much of the country and world, Obama’s victory is an extraordinary step toward the redemption of America’s original 400-year-old sin.
This thinking, which is still common among some of America’s thought leaders, enables insipid aspirational wish fulfillment and feel good politics while obscuring the noxious bone crushing status quo agenda Obama has administered and continues to deliver.
The third and perhaps most damaging aspect of the politics of redemption is that it never ends!! Status quo forces of oppression do not concede rights and political viability to those they oppress because token symbols of achievement and demonstrative humanity have been shown by those on the margins. The oppressor simply keeps dangling the carrot, moving it farther and farther down the road, as you continue to do every seemingly morally upright thing he demands to achieve that coveted “equality.” Such politics are rancid, and the fact that after 150 years of emancipation, Black folks have encapsulated all that is repugnant and wicked about this politics of redemption into the symbolically aspirational yet pragmatically crippling presidency of Barack Obama is proof positive of collective Black political demobilization and actual regression. The Black community must wake up out of the “hope and change” induced stupor in order to mobilize effective oppositional politics that challenge the planned global order of neoliberal privatization, corporate finance hoarding of wealth, and deadening global austerity under the guise of things like the current sequester. We have no choice, and the future will not wait.
“The majority of Negro political leaders do not
ascend to prominence on the shoulders of mass support.
Although genuinely popular leaders are now
emerging, most are still selected by white leadership,
elevated to position, supplied with resources and
inevitably subjected to white control. The mass of Negroes
nurtures a healthy suspicion toward this manufactured
leader, who spends little time in persuading them
that he embodies personal integrity, commitment and
ability and offers few programs and less service.
Tragically, he is in too many respects not a fighter for a new
life but a figurehead of the old one. “
Martin Luther King, Jr.
In perhaps one of the most important biographies of a Civil Rights leader published, Professor Barbara Ransby has conveyed the epic life and struggle of a woman whose sheer skill, leadership, and ability to mobilize the marginalized and dispossessed to full participation in their fight for human dignity is almost unprecedented in American history. In her book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, Professor Ransby documents the life of Ella Baker, a Black woman born to a middle class family in North Carolina in 1903 who, after witnessing the staunch spiritually based dedication of her mother to serving the poor in the South, transforms into a sheer force of will that worked with all the major civil rights organizations of her time, and helped mobilize to create two of the most crucial to the Civil Rights Movement: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Before we continue to heap a single praise or Hosanna to men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, or any of these other gentlemen we idolize as embodiments of masculine heroism, we should know about one woman, of many, who had more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them: Ms. Ella Baker.
What made Baker’s method of organizing both effective and revolutionary is that it completely dismissed the traditional paradigm of leadership that had plagued the Black community from its earliest history in North America, stemming mostly from the Black Church: Charismatic masculine leadership based on oratory and exhibitionism. Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment. Baker believed that people did not need fancy leaders with degrees and pedigree to tell them what was best for them. She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands, and put pressure on institutions without depending on big shots with fancy suits. In her book Professor Ransby notes:
“At every opportunity [Ella] Baker reiterated the radical idea that educated elites were not the natural leaders of Black people. Critically reflecting on her work with the NAACP, she observed, “The Leadership was all from the professional class, basically. I think these are the factors that have kept it [the NAACP] from moving to a more militant position.”
Moreover, Ella Baker was very critical of the hot shot Black preachers who seemed to mesmerize their audiences with soaring oratory, then leave and expect others to implement an agenda. As Ransby further notes, at one point Ella Baker asked Dr. King directly “..why he allowed such hero worship, and he responded simply, that it was what people wanted. This answer did not satisfy Baker in the least.”
Ella Baker did not mince words on her thoughts of Dr. King’s leadership style and vocally spoke out on its limitations:
“Baker described [Dr. King] as a pampered member of Atlanta’s black elite who had the mantle of leadership handed to him rather than having had to earn it, a member of a coddled “silver spoon brigade.” He wore silk suits and spoke with a silver tongue.
…In Baker’s eyes King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead. He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.
…..Baker felt the focus on King drained the masses of confidence in themselves. People often marveled at the things King could do that they could not; his eloquent speeches overwhelmed as well as inspired.”
The limitations of this charismatic masculinity noted by Ella Baker are profound, particularly in today’s political age when we have a president like Barack Obama who often tries to channel the traditions of charismatic leadership and oratory from the Black tradition. Ironically, Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been. So perhaps in a strange twist, we have found a similarity between King and Obama after all.
Often in America, when discussing prominent Black trailblazers who fought the injustices of segregation and racial oppression, we see the same images of a variety of men. I somewhat jokingly call them our superhero black male icons. This phenomenon mimics the more noxious western patriarchal fascination with viewing history as a series of events being shaped and guided by the hands of a strong capable man embodying all our fantasies about leadership, masculinity, and sometimes fatherhood.
The danger of such imagery is that it often both obscures and denies the scope of nuanced factors, issues, and circumstances in shaping the events from which our societies were born. Furthermore, such narratives often exclude any consideration of female agency in effecting the great events that have transpired over time.
Barbara Ransby should be applauded for putting a halt to this tradition and setting the record straight with her towering biography Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement. As a man still troubled with patriarchal sexist notions this book opened my eyes to ways in which the role of women are often neglected and intentionally obscured. Let us all read the story of Ella Baker and make sure such injustices do not continue.
With the Black community still facing excessively high unemployment, the racial wealth gap between Blacks and Whites expanding to numbers higher than recent history, fully one third of the Black community in abject poverty, and overall rates of poverty as high as they’ve been in over 40 years, what has happened to Black leadership? In the face of endless statistics showing the rapid decline of whatever illusory semblance of progress Blacks imagined, such signs of progress have almost evaporated in less than a decade. The ridiculous claim that Barack Obama ushers in a new era of Black leadership is erroneous on its face. The Commander in Chief has made it clear, publicly stating, “I am not the president of Black America.” Furthermore, many voices in the Black community clamored that, “we can’t expect Obama to do anything for us because he can’t appear to show favoritism.” Such sentiments castrated any effective capacity to pressure the first Black president to implement policy demands made by the Black community. Instead, Blacks were resigned to the limited palliatives his administration chose to dole out.
Black people are trapped in a vicious cycle of looking at their favorite leaders and revering them like baseball cards. There lacks an understanding of the full dimension of these leaders and the nature of their relationship to the status quo forces that place them in these positions. These so called “leaders” are not democratically elected by the Black community, yet they have sometimes damaged powerful grassroots movements, democratic in nature, that existed while status quo forces decided to elevate them to positions of power. The process of elevating certain leaders, while pitting them against others who were similarly elevated, allows the establishment to manage the acceptable range of discourse in the black community relative to social and political options.
As noted African American political science Professor Adolph Reed, Jr. stated in his thought provoking book, Stirrings in The Jug:
“To be sure, because Afro- Americans have had no referendum or other forum for legitimizing claims to be a national leader, the support of White opinion makers has been keen for all aspirants to such Race Leader status. From Marcus Garvey to Elijah Muhammad to Louis Farrakhan to Jesse Jackson–all have reproduced the ironic strategy of seeking to become the Black Leader by means of White acclamation.”
Black Leadership being chosen by White acclamation is nothing new and goes back as far as the late 1800s. In an almost formulaic fashion, continued well into the 20th century, the status quo establishment propped up Black leaders who presented acceptable remedies to the “race problem,” then elevated an opponent ideology with a fixed critique. The result was to limit the discourse to those two accepted or acknowledged paradigms.
Booker T. Washington received wide ranging support from Northern industrialists and establishment economic forces in the South promoting an acceptable ideological thesis of accommodation. Subsequently, W.E.B. DuBois, through elite ideological mechanisms, was presented as an philosophical anti-thesis, forcing the process of synthesis to be limited between two totally undemocratic paradigms. Both of these paradigms were chosen by establishment gatekeepers mostly outside the Black community. The same process occurred with DuBois and Marcus Garvey, and continued through Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Its called a Hegelian Dialectic and the Black community has fallen victim to it over and over since the 1890’s. None in today’s Black Community talk about the Colored Farmers Alliance which had over one million members functioning as one of the most progressive Black economic and political forces the community developed in this country. Started in 1886, slightly more than twenty years after slavery, the Colored Farmers Alliance was eventually made up of over 1.2 million farmers and farm workers engaged in extensive co-operative efforts while maintaining a publication, and sponsoring many educational initiatives and conventions.
As mentioned by History Professor Judith Stein in her piece included in the anthology, Renewing Black Intellectual History, entitled: “Of Booker T. Washington and Others, The Political Economy of Racism in the United States:”
“The [Colored Farmers’ Alliance] [through] suballiences were simultaneously fraternal organizations which helped sick and disabled members and purveyed advice on farming, raising families, and other problems of interest to rural people; they also taught the orders principles of political economy. Quickly expanding its activities, the Alabama [Colored Farmers’ Alliance] created a marketing exchange in Mobile, united against the contested mills to obtain higher prices for seed, and cooperated with the Southern Alliance (made up of Whites) in other areas affecting farmers.”
These were former slaves barely a generation removed from shackles.The Colored Farmers’ Alliance started to work extensively with the Southern Alliance, made up of Whites, and the two organizations confederated in 1890. Furthermore, the two organizations cooperated on many initiatives to protect farmers from economic exploitation by larger Southern Institutions. Moreover, the two organizations fused their activity into the Populist Movement and Populist Party that rose in the South during that time. This interracial cooperation, within such a short period after Slavery, mobilized Black and White farm workers into a powerful force threatening the Southern establishment and the political order benefiting the elites.
One of the responses to this rising progressive interracial cooperation by the Southern establishment was supporting Booker T. Washington and financing his Tuskegee machine. Washington would provide an ideological thesis to extinguish the populist activities among Blacks, and neutralize the combined forces of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and the Southern Alliance by arguing for political disenfranchisement and acquiescence to the forces of the larger Southern agricultural interests. These efforts worked to the detriment of members of both alliances, Black and White.
Sadly, few Blacks today even realize that there was a Progressive movement in the South made up of both Blacks and Whites that fought for both political and economic empowerment with sophisticated political platforms until Booker T. Washington, combined with the repressive forces of the wealthy interests that backed him, assisted in stifling all that activity. Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee machine was significant to that demobilization effort.
Furthermore, let us not forget that Booker T. Washington gave his Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895 where he said: “In all things social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” yet it wasn’t until 1896 that the Supreme Court handed down one of the most devastating decisions for African American progress Plessy v. Ferguson that enshrined Separate but Equal into law for most of the next century. Booker T. Washington was not reacting to the racial reality being faced by Blacks, he was helping create a racial climate that advanced the agenda of his Tuskegee Machine. These are things Blacks don’t consider as we continue to prop up our Black Superheroes for idol worship.
Most, if not all of these Black Leaders believed they had good intentions and were race men to some level or degree. My intention is not to picture them as duplicitous traitors who volunteered to be played in this fashion. The point is that these men do not rise in a vacuum, and though they have great talent and charisma, they all fall into the rather consistent trope of the “charismatic Black male leader.” This is a paradigm that has been lodged into the African American psyche going back to the origins of the Black Church, if not earlier. Charismatic masculinity has been an Achilles heel of Black leadership for a simple reason: though whites romanticize charismatic masculinity as well, their leaders–which are chosen from that mold–are picked in a crucible assuring their allegiance to protecting the interests of those they represent. With Black folk, the charismatic leader rises to some level of notoriety organically because of his skill, but once his agenda is fully vetted, or its range is telegraphed by the status quo, he will be catapulted upward into prominence when they see he can be used to their benefit. Often times he will seek those status quo forces out, whether they be government, private sector, or media. This process allows a form of “race ideology management.” You now have limited the acceptable range of discourse by picking your favorable thesis, but need to create an opposition strain to provide an anti-thesis, so you can manage and telegraph the synthesis. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are the perfect illustration of this old method.
The only way to remedy this consistently bankrupt organizational model is to develop Black political mobility that unites people around issues that represent their class and economic interests instead of depending on the illusion of racial kinship forcing us to foist our representation on people chosen within a status quo paradigm. This leads to another problem in the Black community: the reality of “brokerage” politics. A middle class educated Black person, or a Black person faking grassroots bona fides, acts like a “broker” for the “downtrodden” with the powerful Whites as if he’s a legitimate representative of their interests. Ironically this broker is elevated to leadership by the same status quo forces the establishment controls. Brokerage politics is a farce, and Blacks are one of the few communities that fall prey to this charade. Think about it: You have Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton engaging in various discourse about what Barack Obama should or should not do for the Black poor. What is wrong with this picture? All of these men are millionaires if not close to it, including Obama! What logical community of poor people would allow millionaires to be the ones who negotiate their interests for them? It’s idiotic. What ends up happening is that these types of “representatives” do things to ensure their viability as “brokers,” while securing their financial status and yammering on about the same things over and over again. Meanwhile, the poor and disenfranchised continue to get ground to powder. More often, these “brokers” go into overtime trying to maintain close relationships with those at the levers of power. Hence, they actually become servants of those forces. Al Sharpton is a perfect example with the current administration.
This is not to say that there is no value in having notable individuals speak out against political administrations that advocate policies that damage constituencies they have sympathy for. People of other ethnic groups do this as well. The problem in the black community is that such individuals are given some kind of mythical status as actual legitimate representatives of a “collective Black interest” whatever that actually is.
The remedy for this old tired model of leadership is to give power to the people as to empower themselves. At the grassroots level people must be trained with the organizational and political capital to advocate and fight for policy and economic models that best serve their needs. They must negotiate their interests in democratic organizational structures with checks and balances on leadership that truly reflect their demographic realities. Many educated elites would dare argue that the poor and working class don’t have the capacity to advocate for themselves and need the traditional brokers. Once again, the example of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance becomes relevant. Less than 30 years after slavery when Blacks were at a position much more precarious than they are today, with high levels of illiteracy, they were able to organize a grassroots movement of 1.2 million members that advanced social, economic, and political interests in line with their positions in society while effectively challenging the economic status quo and making political alliances with similarly situated Whites. Therefore, shall we argue that in the early 21st century, with all the technological and media vehicles we have, that such mobilization is impossible today? The Black brokerage leadership model needs to die. Grassroots movement based politics has to make a comeback or else the Black community is doomed. The paradigm must be sophisticated and cannot be the mundane standard Kumbaya “We Shall Overcome” pickets and protests format. Those tactics may occasionally be used, but the strategy must be refined and adapted to modern times and given cross generational functionality. We see where the 45 year absence of movement based activism has gotten us. The time is now to wake up and mobilize collectively or abdicate forever to the status quo. The choice is ours. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”–Frederick Douglass.