LeAlan Jones, the 30-year-old Green Party candidate for Barack Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois, is as angry at injustice as he is at the African-American intellectual and political class that accommodates it. He does not buy Obama’s “post-racial” ideology or have much patience with African-American leaders who, hungry for prestige, power and money, have, in his eyes, forgotten the people they are supposed to represent. They have confused a personal ability to be heard and earn a comfortable living with justice.
“The selflessness of leaders like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Harold Washington and Medgar Evers has produced selfishness within the elite African-American leadership,” Jones told me by phone from Chicago.
“This is the only thing I can do to have peace of mind,” he said when I asked him why he was running for office. “I am looking at a community that is suffering because of a lack of genuine concern from their leaders. This isn’t about a contract. This isn’t about a grant. This isn’t about who gets to stand behind the political elite at a press conference. This is about who is going to stand behind the people. What these leaders talk about and what needs to happen in the community is disjointed.”
Jones began his career as a boy making radio documentaries about life in Chicago’s public housing projects on the South Side, including the acclaimed “Ghetto Life 101.” He knows the world of which he speaks. He lives in the troubled Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, where he works as a freelance journalist and a high school football coach. He is the legal guardian of a 16-year-old nephew. And he often echoes the denunciations of black leaders by the historian Houston A. Baker Jr., who wrote “Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era.”
Baker excoriates leading public intellectuals including Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Shelby Steele, Yale law professor Stephen Carter and Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter, saying they pander to the powerful. He argues they have lost touch with the reality of most African-Americans. Professor Gates’ statement after his July 16 arrest that “what it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable are all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policemen” was a stunning example of how distant from black reality many successful African-American figures like Gates have become. These elite African-American figures, Baker argues, long ago placed personal gain and career advancement over the interests of the black majority. They espouse positions that are palatable to a white audience, positions which ignore the radicalism and structural critiques of inequality by W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And in a time when, as the poet Yusef Komunyakaa has said, “the cell block has replaced the auction block,” they do not express the rage, frustration and despair of the black underclass.
The conditions for black men and women in America are sliding backward, with huge numbers of impoverished and unemployed removed from society and locked up. Baker acidly calls this “the disappearing” of blacks. The unemployment rate in most inner cities is in the double digits, and segregation, especially in city schools and wealthy states like New Jersey, is the norm. African-American communities are more likely to be red-lined by banks and preyed upon by unscrupulous mortgage lenders, which is why such a high percentage of foreclosures are in blighted, urban neighborhoods. The Village Voice’s recent exposé that detailed brutal and sometimes fatal beatings of black and Hispanic prisoners by guards at New York’s Rikers Island was a window into a daily reality usually not seen or acknowledged by the white mainstream.
“The only difference between the world of high finance and drug dealers are the commodities they deal,” he added. “The mentality is the same.”
The most prominent faces of color, such as Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, mask an insidious new racism that, in essence, tells blacks they have enough, that progress has been made and that it is up to them to take advantage of what society offers them. And black politicians and intellectuals, including Obama and Gates, are the delivery systems for the message. We blame the victims, those for whom jobs and opportunities do not exist, while we orchestrate the largest transfer of wealth upward in American history. We sustain with taxpayer dollars a power elite and oligarchy that is responsible for dismantling the manufacturing base and social service programs which once gave workers and their families hope. Apologists for the system call their demands for black personal responsibility “tough love.” But the stance, music to the ears of the white elite, is to Baker and Jones morally indefensible. It ignores the harsh reality visited on the poor by the cruelty of unfettered capitalism. It ignores the institutional racism that makes sure the poor remain poor.
“The most published and publicized blacks on the American public scene today are well-dressed, comfortably educated, sagaciously articulate, avowedly new age, and resolutely middle class … , ” Baker wrote. “The evolution of their relationship to the black majority during the past three decades can be summed up in a single word: good-bye!”
“Things are deteriorating,” Jones said of the inner city. “There are no natural relationships because of the decentralization of the street gangs. You don’t have a leadership structure that can be talked to by members of the community to bring peace. You have basically guerrilla warfare going on in the inner city of Chicago. There is no structure or hierarchy where you can go talk to one person in the neighborhood that can then go down the pecking order to bring peace. You have different groups that have different motivations, and that factionalism is at the base of the violence. But there is no alternative when you don’t have jobs, when you have an educational system that has failed and bad home environments.”
Jones said Obama’s silence was illustrated during a recent fundraising trip to Chicago. The president called Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle to congratulate him for pitching a perfect game. Obama made no comment, however, about the shooting of nine people in Chicago, including a 9-year-old girl, a few days earlier.
“When Barack Obama does not speak to these issues, it is almost a double devastation to a certain degree,” he said. “It is different if President Bush doesn’t say anything or Bill Clinton doesn’t say anything. But when Barack Obama can’t say the obvious, it does a double devastation to those young men who wanted to hope and wanted to believe in the system to redress these issues.”
August Wilson wrote his last play, “Radio Golf,” about the black elite that sold out the African-American community in exchange for personal power and wealth. He portrayed them as tools and puppets of the white mainstream. It was the final salvo from one of the country’s most courageous playwrights on behalf of the forgotten. The show, despite being named best American play by the New York Drama Critics Circle and earning a Tony nomination for best play, was one of the least attended shows on Broadway and closed after less than two months. There are African-American leaders and writers with Wilson’s integrity who have refused to accommodate an economic and political system that increasingly punishes the poor, especially the poor of color, but you do not see them on CNN or writing Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times. Dick Gregory, James Cone of Union Theological Seminary, Thulani Davis, Komunyakaa, Angela Davis, Baker and Ishmael Reed still harbor the radical fire of our greatest civil rights leaders.
And, of course, there is Harry Belafonte, whose invitation to speak at the funeral of Coretta Scott King was withdrawn so President George W. Bush, whom Belafonte had called a “terrorist,” would not be offended when he spoke there. This last slight illustrates how craven many in the black elite, including some of Dr. King’s children, have become and how hard it is to hear the anguished cries of those being beaten down in the age of Obama.
Courtiers come in different colors in America but their function is the same. They are hedonists of power. They are invited into the inner circles of the elite, including the White House and Harvard University, as long as they faithfully serve the system. They are offered comfort and privilege, but they pay with their souls.
“Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear,” Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “but for the Negro, there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance, the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”