Over a year ago many in the Black community temporarily suspended reality in order to fully enjoy and embrace the previously unthinkable – Barack Obama had became the first Black president in United States history. For that precious magic moment on November 4, 2008, centuries of racism, disproportionate poverty, and police brutality seemed like a nightmare that had been erased by shouting, crying, embracing one another in victory, and repeating YES WE CAN over and over again.
Unfortunately, all moments in time must succumb to the enduring nature of reality. No matter how great and historic Obama’s victory was, it could not permanently mask the deep rooted problems that impact Black people in particular. On November 11, 2008, Dontaze Storey Jr., a 28 year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by LAPD officers. Exactly one week after Barack Obama trounced John McCain to win the presidency, an unarmed Black man was shot in the back and mouth in front of his pregnant fiancé on a busy Los Angeles street corner.
Perhaps more tragic is the fact that Obama’s victory has seemingly failed to embolden Black elected officials to take stronger stances – especially on behalf of Black people. In the aftermath of Dontaze’s murder, no Black elected official wanted to acknowledge and/or assist the family in finding justice against the officers and department responsible. Even in the era of Obama, these “community leaders” found holding the LAPD accountable for their actions way too risky. From their estimation, taking that kind of stand puts them at risk of not receiving hefty campaign contributions from law enforcement organizations or getting re-elected.
This train of thought is particularly damaging considering the fact that Black people marched, registered to vote, and mobilized to elect Black politicians like Tom Bradley, Shirley Chisholm, Kenneth Gibson, and yes Barack Obama because we believed that having someone from our community as a decision maker would protect us from police terror, open up educational and economic opportunities, and help lead us to a brighter tomorrow.
Despite that legacy, however, many Black politicians have become accustomed to playing it safe. Instead confronting unjust individuals and groups that negatively impact our community, they would rather play the game “let’s make a deal”. On many of the issues that have long plagued Black people – poverty, violence, police brutality – Black politicians have been silent and/or grossly ineffective. It begs the question, “Why do we even keep voting for them?” In the aftermath of Obama’s great victory, many Black young adults are beginning to wonder, “What difference did voting really make?” Rightfully so, we are wondering what good is it to have Black elected officials if the Black community in which they represent remains largely without jobs, full of poor schools, and littered with drugs and disrespectful police.
However, I must state that I firmly believe that the Black community must be represented by Black leadership. It must also be made clear that problems within the Black community are not the sole fault or responsibility of Black elected officials. Surely, we need a united front of principled and hard-working Black people from various sectors (i.e. churches, labor unions, students) to come together. However, Black elected officials, in my estimation, are currently the most visible symbol of community empowerment. We cannot ignore the fact that they are involved in making crucial decisions on a daily basis. Therefore, as a community we must demand more from them. Furthermore, Black elected officials must demand more from themselves. Whether they’re a City Councilperson, County Supervisor, or President of the United States, they must see themselves as custodians of a legacy covered in the blood and heroism of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and Ella Baker. Thus, they cannot allow the illusions of the Obama era or political convenience to numb their passion to protect and provide for Black people in particular and all people who seek truth and justice. In this spirit, I humbly offer the following recommendations:
1. We must immediately end divisive political camps within the Black community. Many hard-working and intelligent people are kept from working with each other because two Blacks elected officials don’t get along. This situation has prevented many good ideas from being developed and implemented
2. Black elected officials must lead a serious and sustained organizing effort to re-connect themselves with the broad concerns of the entire Black community in order to act upon them. Too often Black elected officials listen to a relatively small circle of supporters and allies. Often that circle is defined by socio-economic class and geography. A series of townhalls, house meetings, and other community-based events should take place anywhere Black people live
3. Do serious political work anywhere Black people live. In Los Angeles, there is a tendency to concentrate efforts in the Black community to the Crenshaw District, Baldwin Hills, or Leimert Park. However, we also live in areas along Normandie Avenue, neighborhoods in Mid-City, and in the low bottoms on the Eastside. I suspect that much of the hesitancy to work in these areas are a result of class-bias issues within our community
4. Lastly, Black elected officials must play a leading role in developing organizations – independent from political parties – that unify the diverse spectrum of the Black community, develop the next generation of Black leaders, and carry out the work of the people. In the 1960s, they called this the “Black United Front”.
Lets get to work.