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The other day, a non-Black person asked me what I thought about the state of Black leadership in America.  He then mentioned that he is confused about exactly who speaks for Black people, since he sees a new Black face on TV every other week.  I think he wanted me to tell him who the key players are, and who he should look to in order to obtain “the Black perspective.”

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I looked at the man, thought for a second, and then asked, “What is the state of White leadership in America?  Who speaks for your people?”

The man was puzzled by my response, and looked like he wanted to slap me.  But I certainly hope he got the point.  The point is that there is no single individual or group of individuals who represent “the Black perspective” or anyone who has primary control over “the Black agenda.”   We are as diverse as anyone, and nearly every Black American citizen is fully capable of thinking for themselves and leading their own families.

A recent survey confirms that others African-Americans feel the same way.  In a recent Your Black World/Kulture Kritic survey, the majority of African-American respondents (72.3%) feel that most Americans falsely believe that Black leadership is defined primarily by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  Also, nearly two-thirds of African-American respondents (63.8%) believe that Black leaders are typically chosen by White media.

Also, most of the Black respondents (85%) said they were either unhappy or extremely unhappy with the state of Black leadership in America.   The fact is that the problems in our community are too numerous to mention. Mass incarceration has taken away millions of Black fathers, our schools are not educating our kids, our economic opportunities are getting worse, and violence has put many cities in a state of emergency.  All the while, Washington politicians care nothing about the holocaust occurring in urban centers across the country and many Black figureheads are more concerned with maintaining their status as Washington insiders than they are about finding real solutions.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton should not be blamed for the sad state of Black leadership in America.  When I hear others complain about what Al and Jesse are not doing, I simply ask if they feel they can effectively compare their own contributions to those of Sharpton and Jackson.   For all of their imperfections, it’s sad that we somehow feel the need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

What remains clear, however, is that the concept of Black leadership absolutely must change right now.  It must be decentralized, so that all of us are carrying the weight, instead of waiting for a small group of people to get everything done.  We must also consider what experts in multiple fields have to offer, instead of sending our favorite preacher to the White House to discuss economic and educational policy. All of us are Black leaders, whether it be in our families, in our social circles or in our communities.  Power must be restored to the people.

When a tornado devastates a small town, the mess can be overwhelming.   It is not going to clean itself up, and it’s certainly not going to be cleaned up if the majority of the town’s residents watch while two or three people do the work.  The only way the mess is cleaned up is if everyone does their part to help manage the devastation.  The same is true for the destruction that has occurred in Black America over the last 50 years.  All of us must do our part on some small level and proclaim ourselves to be Black leadersDr. .  By working together and making our own contributions, we can find a way out of this mess.  But if we continue using the same methodology, we are going to get the same old tired results.

It’s time to try something different.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


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