Every February in classrooms, school assemblies, and church programs all over America, a spotlight is thrown on the many past achievements of African Americans. These achievements, we are rightly reminded, were attained in the face of oppression, segregation, and discrimination. Unfortunately — as the current presidential election cycle highlights — many political leaders and intellectuals still act as though the black past is the black present, as though the pernicious circumstances of history still oppress the present.
This kind of thinking keeps us from moving ahead. It is fueled by three related misperceptions.
First, even though the black church is no longer the force that it once was in black communities, politicians still think it necessary to offer words from pulpits. Their intention, of course, is not to preach the Gospel but to offer rhetoric about their concern for “the black community.” Although currently ineffective, the tactic is based on the historically pivotal role of the black church. From the time of slavery through the civil-rights movement, the church was the most influential institution among black people. Black pastors served as mediators between various black communities and the white world.
In addition, prior to the civil-rights movement, white politicians, businessmen, other leaders would request meetings with local black clergy to discuss significant issues. These pastors would then return to their respective congregations and communicate to them the substance of the meetings. The importance of this mediating role for the clergy declined with the onset of the civil rights movement, as more blacks benefited from economic and social progress and gained direct access to realms previously reserved for black leaders.
One result of this progress is a rise in blacks’ economic prowess. Black spending power, estimated at $630 billion annually, has yet to be appreciated. Politicians genuinely solicitous of blacks’ interests should make appearances at this year’s Black Enterprise Conference or at various chapters of 100 Black Men Inc., a national youth mentoring organization committed to the intellectual development and economic empowerment of the African-American community based upon respect for family, spirituality, justice and integrity.
Something less auspicious is also contributing to the decline of the black clergy’s influence: Most black Americans don’t even attend church anymore. Sadly, as the black clergy’s leadership role has declined, it has also been distorted. Many black pastors allow their churches to be pawns in a political chess match. For many politicians in both parties, black pastors and their congregations become merely means to the desired end of electoral victory. This fact is made painfully true months after presidential inaugurations. For example, the promised war on poverty has in the end destroyed many black urban neighborhoods.
Second, it is time finally to put to death the idea that black people have or need “a black leader.” Blacks no longer need designated leaders. Like whites, Asians, or any other group of individuals, blacks are capable of thinking on their own. Who are the leaders of the Asian community? Or the white community? These questions should sound just as ridiculous when applied to blacks in America. The idea that there needs to be another Martin Luther King, Jr.-type is baggage left over from a time now passed. Both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been categorically—and rightly—rejected in their attempt to claim the coveted title “Leader of the Black Community.”
Blacks are mainstream Americans. Blacks do not need national leaders because the struggle for equality under the law successfully provided opportunity to enter America’s institutions at all levels. Blacks now have the freedom to exercise the same liberties that the rest of Americans have in the same way—including the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Third, the idea that there exists an entity meaningfully called “the black community” needs to be challenged as well. Blacks in America are by no means homogenous; they occupy diverse places in both the geographical and socio-economic landscapes. Forty percent of blacks live in America’s suburbs, while only about one-fifth live in urban centers. Blacks do not share the same values or religion. Although various “black communities” might reasonably be said to exist, the idea that one needs to reach out to “the” black community is nothing less than resurrected Jim Crow rhetoric. To refer to issues in “the black community” is actually to refer to nothing substantial—or, rather, it is to refer to the whole spectrum of issues that are of concern to other Americans.
Overall, the idea persists that specific black leaders and a distinct black community is important because we live in a country where racism still exists. There are some who view black progress only in terms of white racism. Blacks have not made much progress, this line of argument goes, because racism still exists. Of course racism still exists. Racism is a sin and, as long as people sin, racism will exist. This is not to say that it should not be fought, as all evils should. Insofar as racism is based on ignorance, a useful strategy for challenging it is for blacks to expose its irrationality by continuing to achieve the successes we celebrate in Black History Month.
In light of the contemporary absence of significant institutional barriers, black progress is largely independent of the retrograde attitudes of a few white racists. The out-dated approaches of the 1960s keep many blacks from seeing this new reality. A more realistic and hopeful America seeks more ways to empower blacks and other minorities spiritually, socially, politically, and economically. This empowerment comes not from government favors or ethno-centrism but from the God-given realization of one’s own inherent dignity which flourishes in freedom and the rule of law.