Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Blood of Martyrs Strategy is Tragic for Poor Blacks

One of the books I received for Christmas is Juan Williams', Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It.

True to its title, the book takes a hard look at the cultural crisis of black America. It takes as its jumping off point Bill Cosby's 2004 speech at a Washington, D.C., black-tie function commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Cosby attacked the lower one-third of black America for failing to hold up its end of the civil rights bargain implicit in the Brown decision. Persistent black poverty, lack of educational attainment, and high rates of black imprisonment and illegitimacy cannot be blamed on the alleged patterns of continuing white racism, Cosby argued. Instead, Cosby claimed that black Americans have failed in their responsibility to seize the opportunities afforded by that landmark decision. The speech kicked off a firestorm of debate among black intellectuals and activists, as well as within the mainstream media. Cosby was called a "race traitor" who turned his back on the problems of the contemporary African-Americans.

Williams takes up the debate on Cosby's side. One argument Williams makes is that disadvantaged blacks have been betrayed by the current black leadership. Unlike earlier, historic generations of America's black leaders who sought expansion of rights and self-improvement as the key to black progress -- figures like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, and Thurgood Marshall -- today's black leadership has focused on white America's continued debt to blacks from its history of racism. Williams says today's black leaders enforce a code of silence against anyone speaking out against the cultural perversities the continue to keep blacks down.

In one powerful passage, Williams cites Al Sharpton's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which Sharpton attacked President Bush's question to the Democrats on why their leaders have failed blacks in educational outcomes. Why, Bush asked, should African-Americans continue to support a party that hasn't helped them -- why should the Democrats take the black vote for granted? Sharpton's response in his convention address noted that it was the Democrats who had earned the black vote:

"Our vote is soaked in the blood of martyrs, the blood of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, soaked in the blood of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama. This vote is sacred to us. This vote can't be bargained away...given away. Mr. President, in all due respect, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale!"
Williams notes that the crowd went crazy at Sharpton's riposte to President Bush. But why? For what, Willams asks? What have the Democrats done to halt the spread of poverty among the black poor? What record of achievement could the Demorats claim to justify continued black partisan support?

The answer: absolutely nothing. But by waving the red flag labeled "blood of martyrs," Sharpton diverted all attention from dealing with bad schools, persistent high rates of unemployment, and a range of issues that are crippling a generation of black youth. Somehow, "blood of martyrs" remains the anthem of black politics at the start of the twenty-first century. Black politics is still defined by events that took place forty years ago. Protest marches are reenacted again and again as symbolic exercises to the point that they have lost their power to achieve change. As a result, black politics is paralyzed, locked in a synchronized salute and tribute, by any mention of the martyrs, the civil rights workers who died violent deaths at the hands of racists. The major national black politicians invoke these icons and perform shallow reenactments of the powerful marches of the movement as hypnotic devices to control their audiences. And if people try to break the spell by suggesting we move beyond these ancient heroes and their tactics, they are put down with language that implicates them as tools of the white establishment, reactionaries who've "forgotten their roots." Race traitors.

So far, the "blood of martyrs strategy" has had tragic results for the progress of poor black people, but it has worked magnificently for a few national black politicians. Prominent leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, neither of whom has ever won an election or held political office, have -- through the force of their personalities and rhetoric, and the limitations of their ideas and strategies -- slowed the emergence of any new model of national black leadership. Very few new ideas are allowed into this stifling echo chamber. Late-twentieth-century black politics grew out of a youthful, vibrant civil rights movement. But today national black politics is dry and dusty with age.
Enough is a great book, with a sorely needed message. Williams is very balanced in his writing. He does not deny continuing remnants of discrimination and racism in America. He's simply challenges the fixation of some blacks on discriminatory treatment, and notes that such an occupation will consign poor blacks to unending patterns of underachievement. I'm constantly reminded of many of Williams themes on my campus and in my classrooms -- the hallways on the floor of my division are covered with framed posters of the historic civil rights leaders, and campus activists push the politics of racial grievance in a variety of symposia and functions. There is a time and place for honoring this legacy, of course, but leaders in this movement can never forget the key message of the black freedom struggle: black progress and attaintment will come when black people help themselves.

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