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It's Time to Call for New Black Leadership

In 2002, only four House incumbents lost to challengers—the fewest ever, and more than 80 percent of seats were won by landslide margins. Three out of every four who had relatively close races in 2000 ran in 2002 in districts redrawn favorably for their party. According to a study from the JCPES, which covers federal, state, municipal, and local officials, the number of black male elected politicians declined between 1998 and 2001. The only gains were made by black women.

It must also be said that black leadership has been systematically assailed over the years. While we are sometimes reminded of the attacks on leaders across the country in the 1960s, official investigations have been a way of life for blacks in public office ever since. People of color appointed by President Bill Clinton were hounded out of office or prevented from assuming jobs as cabinet members and federal judges. And let us not forget the retribution doled out to former Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney for questioning U.S. intelligence on the 9-11 attacks. Republicans in Atlanta crossed party lines to vote against her in the Democratic primary.

For the moment, though, Julian Bond, for one, is upbeat on the subject of black leadership, pointing to the role played in recent days by pols like South Carolina representative James Clyburn. "And there are other leadership types," he says, "making noise and raising Cain all over the U.S.A." However, he adds, "there is the interesting side debate about the 'hip-hop' versus the 'sit-in generation,' although I have to say as a presumed member of the latter, I have never heard anyone in my age cohort define us that way. In fact, I find it a curiously one-sided debate—with the hip-hoppers arguing against their elders but not offering any rationale for why they ought to be taken seriously as 'leaders' or 'innovators' or as serious challengers to African Americans' status in life."

illustration: Sam Weber

Maybe the divide is not so great. Youth are skeptical of authority, but that doesn't mean they can't separate the real from the rest. As Kevin Powell puts it, "To be a black leader, you've got to have a level of integrity and selflessness. You cannot participate in the commodification of black leadership. You can't treat young voters as if they're people buying CDs." While there are those trying to organize youth from large stages with rap stars, others like Powell are at work on the ground. "It's very difficult," he says of putting on public forums. "We were getting 500 to 2,000 people out, but we had a hard time getting money to pay for the events. But with the hip-hop generation, it's all about the hustle—we don't let that stop us."

It has been a boon to those watching the debates that Sharpton was there chiding the party to honor its roots, along with Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun, but Sharpton and Moseley Braun proved that black voters are not waiting for a black candidate to do as Jesse did—win 7 million votes, register 2 million, and not get any understanding from the nominee.

The keen interest African American voters—particularly progressives—had in the Dean campaign serves notice that we also are looking for fresh ideas. Dean may be too temperamental to have his finger on any missiles, but he is not a retread of anybody else. Today's black leaders have been living in the shadows of the fallen—visionaries who can't be duplicated. A candidacy propped up—like Sharpton's—by help from folks who prefer to see the Democrats mired in their own contradictions is not a new idea. Black leaders are failing us for the same reason white leaders are failing us: They are not dealing with the problems on the ground. For the past 30 years too many have modeled their ideas of leadership on mythical icons.

Sharpton wanted to be the next Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Jackson wanted to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. Jesse Jackson Jr. probably also wants to be the next Jesse. Carol Moseley Braun was pegged the next Shirley Chisholm, whose chief significance as a black candidate is that she was the first. There are quite a few neo-Malcolms like Cornel West among the over-40 set, and Henry Louis Gates is out to be the new W.E.B. DuBois, but a televised one. Louis Farrakhan wanted to be the new Elijah Muhammad, and Chavis Muhammad looks to be grooming himself to be a new, kinder, gentler Farrakhan with sartorial touches from his hip-hop mogul boss, Russell Simmons.

At the margins we have the "new" Black Panthers and an array of Muslim sects ranging from progressive to regressive. Most of the remaining prominent black (and yes, male) voices out there "representing," such as Kweisi Mfume and Randall Robinson, give you a Malcolm-Martin stylistic mix. (No neo-Baldwins or -Rustins in this crew.)

We are way overdue for a change in black leadership—a few 21st-century originals or, better yet, many of them. We need young people with ideas who aren't just out to dine at Gallagher's with Roger Stone or make headlines by stripping in public. Does one have to say that the answer won't come from the cold warrior Condoleezza Rice or General Colin Powell, now tainted as an apologist for missing weapons of mass destruction?

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