Just Whistlin Dixie: Katrina exposes crisis of Black Leadership
For many in the black community, the tragedy of New Orleans will be etched in our collective memory. More so, the sight of starving and homeless black people at the hands of a merciless government only confirms that America is racist and white supremacist to the core. For the black radical left New Orleans, however, could prove to be a crucial turning point. Some 40 years after the Watts rebellion that rocked the nation and transformed the civil rights struggle into the black liberation movement, African American political leadership is in crisis. Organizing tactics have focused more on media spotlight and getting a seat at the corporate table rather than the grassroots organizing and building community institutions. As such, black politics has shifted from radical critiques of institutional racism to “representational politics.” So while there are more Black CEOs, entertainment stars and wealth than any other time in America history, African Americans as a whole are suffering from the systematic problems of poverty, prisons, and prejudice. New Orleans, with its 44 percent illiteracy rate, high numbers of black parolees and prisoners, along with a 32 percent poverty rate among children, serves as microcosm of the problems besetting black America as a whole. Still, crisis presents opportunity and the events in New Orleans must serve as a springboard into a critical look at black leadership and vision as a whole.
Black Leaders Shift to the Right
The inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001 marked a major turning point in black politics. The Supreme Court voting in favor of Bush in the 2000 Florida voting recount case harkened to the days of black voter disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow era. Voter intimidation and fraud at black polling sites, as well as the placement of well-trained right wing foot soldiers, gave Bush the political momentum to capture the White House. For many black politicians, Bush’s election (or some say selection) marked a significant shift to the right, particularly around race. Bush, as governor of Texas, sent more African Americans to death row than any other governor in the United States, and is firmly against affirmative action in higher education. Bush’s election also marked an end for black politicians to the fairy tale ride of the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton offered unprecedented access to the halls of power for African Americans inside the beltway. He frequently meet and spoke to civil rights organizations, hired black political advisors like Vernon Jordan, and brought more black artists and entertainers to the White House than any other president. During the Monica Lewisky affair, Jesse Jackson prayed with him and Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison christened him “the black president.” The title was more ironic than iconic, because under the Clinton administration, the number of black prisoners rose to 1.8 million inmates and Clinton placed a five year minimum on public assistance, forcing many into “workfare programs.” Clinton even put the icing on the cake by moving to Harlem, precipitin gentrification in the cultural hub of black community. While the leadership enjoyed unprecedented access, the base suffered. Still, since Clinton signified to the aspirations and ambitions of the black middle class, including such groups as the NAACP and the Rainbow Coalition, black politicians were willing to provide him with cover. Bush, was another story altogether. Rather than negotiating traditional groups linked with the Democratic Party such as the NAACP, Bush reached out to burgeoning groups of black conservatives, particularly African-American evangelical ministers. Conservative pastors such as Bishop Harry Jackson of the 2,500 member Hope Christian Church in Maryland have taken the stage with Pat Robertson and Senator Bill Frist against same sex marriage. President Bush’s promise of “faith based initiatives”, government funds to church groups for social programs, began to attract more black religious leaders into his fold. The Rev. Floyd Flake, head of the largely black Allen AME Church and former Congressman from New York, was an early Bush supporter in 2000 and recipient of faith based funding. In Baton Rogue, Bush appeared alongside TD Jakes, head of the Potter’s House, a mega church at a shelter for displaced persons. Jakes, dubbed by Time “as the next Billy Graham”, has opened his church to Republican luminaries such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. Jakes for his part his called for political neutrality from the pulpit “There are certainly clergy who steer totally to the right and those who steer totally to the left, but I have never seen an eagle fly one wing” he told the Washington Post. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, cheered by many for his vocal criticism of FEMA’s handling of the black crisis is also representative of the new right in black leadership. Nagin, an executive of Cox Communication was a life long republican and contributor to the campaign to elect George Bush. He switched his party affiliation only in his run for mayor, yet maintained his big business overlook. Nagin opposed a Living Wage Bill that two-thirds of his heavily black constituency supported. Even in his anti-corruption campaign, Nagin focused primarily on black taxi cab drivers, and not the business establishment. Rev. Al Sharpton has railed against President Bush’s handling of the Katrina crisis, citing the rapid response to the hurricane in Florida last year and the lack of response to Katrina. Yet, Sharpton’s National Action Network is slated give awards to Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, both are being sued for violating the civil rights of their workers. This pragmatic and contradictory approach by official black leadership goes against the mass protest approach favored by leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Luther King. For them, black political power came from mobilizing the base of black workers and community organization into a massive political force that demanded decent jobs, housing and protection under the law.
Freedom Riding: Crisis and Opportunity
The tragedy of New Orleans has been a tremendous blow to the state.. Like Nagin who said “money for Iraq was there lickety quick” many are drawing connections from Bush international policy and domestic issues. For grassroots black leaders this also provides a chance to create a new vibrant movement for black liberation. If history is a guide, crisis also brings about opportunity. Self Help organizations like the United Negro Improvement association and the NAACP grew after the race riots of 1919. The stand of Rosa Parks birthed the modern civil rights movement. During the 1960s, attempts were made by landowners in Mississippi to starve out organizers attempting to register voters. An active effort was made by the Council of Federated Organization (led by student activist Robert Moses) to create a caravan that donated food and supplies from the North to the South. A similar strategy was used by Robert F Williams, leader of the Monroe County NAACP and organizer of armed self-defense patrols. Williams used his speaking tours to raise relief for blacks in Union County. These solidarity actions helped cross geographical border and created new networks among black organizers. One could imagine a 21st century Freedom Ride, based on the work of civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) where, organizers from the cities came down south to fight for justice while supporting immediate relief efforts Currently the Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition of progressive organizations in New Orleans have established a People’s Hurricane Fund for relief funding that go directly into community organizations. CLU is setting up a base head in Jackson, MS to coordinate progressive relief efforts. The Brooklyn chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXG) has collected 50 tons of food, clothing and supplies and are sending weekly caravans to support evacuees. The Prometheus Radio Project is organizing working to organize a low power community radio station for survivors in Houston. The demand of “right of return” for evacuees back to New Orleans has builds the possibility of international solidarity, particularly with the Palestinian movement. The duty of progressives and radicals in this moment is to seize the momentum.