New Black Power Politics
Tuesday, August 15 2000, 3:30 PM
LOS ANGELES - Tavis Smiley, often described as the Larry King of Black Entertainment Television for his insightful, conversation-starting, nightly news program, convened "New Paradigms for Progress," a day-long "public think tank" at the University of Southern California. Bringing twenty of black America's most prominent intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and clergy, together with L.A. neighborhood leaders, to discuss a 21st century agenda for African America, the event was conspicuously absent from both the Los Angeles Times and the d2Kla calendar, but drew a wide cross-section of L.A.'s black community, overflowing USC's main Bovard Auditorium, classrooms connected by video link, and much of the lawn and walkways between.
Conspicuously absent from the event was much discussion of the Democratic Convention and this year's presidential race. Reverend Jesse Jackson, who will address the Convention Tuesday night, argued the merits of black congressional committee chairs and Democratic appointees to the judiciary. But Cornel West drew far more acclaim with his condemnation of Al Gore, citing the selection of Joe Lieberman as vice-president. Criticizing Lieberman as an architect of welfare reform and the dismantler of affirmative action, West concluded, "When you're not respecting Black people, you don't get my vote," to strong applause.
Underlying disagreement over presidential politics was a broad consensus that the days of allowing political parties to dictate an agenda to black America were over. A common theme was the need to strengthen community in black life and to span internal divisions, the most commonly cited being a generation gap, characterized by some as a split between hip-hop culture and an older, civil rights culture. Often, the day's most interesting moments came from those who refused to accept the characterization of hip-hop as apolitical, such as Michael Eric Dyson, whose fusion of Christian polemics and rap, of status as Baptist minister and Ivy League professor, rocked the house, before poet/critic Nikki Giovanni brought it down by noting, "I love hip-hop because somebody has to call a muthafucka a muthafucka, and they do that." While no one on the panel noted this, the nationwide mobilization of youth activists through hip-hop, like the beach party young activists assembled in the shadow of the delegates' party at the Santa Monica Pier Sunday night, challenged the notion that hip-hop can be reduced to crassness or materialism, though several speakers had theories on the corporate projection of these images.
One reason cited for the generation gap was the destructive effect of a "prison-industrial complex" upon the black family. Seizing the traditional civil rights concern of expanding the electorate and exercising voting rights, Giovanni took this in an unusual direction by stating, "The most important thing the Black community must do is to support the right of prisoners to vote." Importantly, Giovanni's call was not a radically chic reassertion of prisoners as the vanguard of the movement, but a call for "re-enfranchisement," paralleling a reassertion of the right to congregate in public space.
Against a statistical backdrop noting the selective prosecution and disproportionate sentencing of black people, the expanding criminalization of behavior in "crimes that would not be crimes if Black prisoners could vote," and the denial of suffrage to one-third of black men in Florida and Alabama because of their records, Giovanni asserted that incarceration should not deny prisoners the right to choose playgrounds and quality schools for their children. Law professor Lani Guinier-who first came to public attention when President Clinton nominated her to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division-criticized a war on drugs that "criminalize[s] drug abuse for black people and medicalize[s] it for white people." Hints of a coalescing critique of corporations and prisons-to explain why, in the words of Bishop Noel Jones, black "uselessness [in the labor market] only becomes usefulness when you begin to privitize prisons"- may be realized in protest in the streets of Los Angeles this week.
All speakers, particularly clergy, suggested that in keeping with the day's goal of "new paradigms," the need to define self, to locate what unifies black people, and to avoid an infighting or jockeying for position for the trickle-down of institutional power was paramount, not the decision over Gore or Bush. Danny Bakewell, leader of the Brotherhood Crusade, which contests discriminatory hiring, contracting, and police practices against black people in Los Angeles, said, "WE have to define how we deal with the DNC...We have to combine our intellectual leadership with activism... [and] talk about issues in a way that promotes activism." Johnetta Cole, president emerita of Spelman College, was one of several to cite the legacy of W.E.B. DuBois, in suggesting that, "A well-educated person not only understands the world better but acts to make it better."
A renewed emphasis on collectivity-what Guinier called one of Black people's strongest assets-marked the day's comments. Smiley lauded Randall Robinson, founder of the black foreign policy lobby TransAfrica, for his personal commitment-in the form of sit-ins that demanded divestment and freed Nelson Mandela, and a hunger strike for the restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidency in Haiti. Yet, with a nod to a younger generation of activists, Robinson declared, "I don't believe that our traditional models of leadership will work from now on," criticizing a "messianic" or "celebrity" leadership whose failure to develop the capacity of "common people" to lead themselves, he suggested, was the undoing of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The capacity of black people to lead was repeatedly asserted. With Reverend Jackson's urging, "We must lead the nation, not just the neighborhood," complementing Guinier's encouragement of "a movement for justice, not just us," the freshest words came from Jesse Jackson, Jr., congressional representative from South Side Chicago. Citing the death of a black man dragged behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, Jackson took the politically impolitic task of arguing that "economic insecurity" lay at the root of America's grossest racial offenses, and that by establishing the economic rights of all Americans to housing, health care, and full employment, black Americans would then be empowered to demand reparations for slavery. Without establishing this economic base, Jackson suggested, the reparations movement, like the recently-introduced measure for reparations in Congress, could not win.
In a brief summation period, Johnetta Cole noted, "We have to give up either/or. It's not race versus class; it's all that and more. It's not elections versus grassroots organizing, building coalitions versus doing for self; it's both. And our ability as individuals should not be pitted against collective action." Citing a need to "educate, legislate, and agitate," Cole concluded, "We need to do everything."
Moderator Charles Ogletree, professor at Harvard Law, noted, "For the first time in a while, I'm not hearing us separate the good people from the bad people." Ogletree's note that in the old days, the program would have concluded with a chorus of "We Shall Overcome" was met with a laughter simultaneously celebratory and critical. "Now, I think I'm hearing it's the O-Jays, 'Wake Up, Everybody.' It's Aretha's 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T.' It's Chaka Khan's 'I'm Every Woman.' If you sense what I sense, this is just the beginning."
Notable was the degree to which everything expressed at this broad sample of black leadership-the importance of self-constitution and collectivity, the need to regenerate institutions that are accountable and self-perpetuating, the need for a totality of resistance-paralleled the concerns of a direct action movement heretofore usually represented as white. If, how, and why these groups meet and converge in Los Angeles may set a direction for grassroots politics for years to come.
Aaron Shuman is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.