Re-thinking Black leadership, Part 1

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by Khalid Raheem

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd Annual African American Leadership Summit, convened by the African American Leadership Association. This year’s summit theme was “Influential Leadership: Moving Forward, Looking Back.” The keynote address was delivered by Chester Watson, an extremely accomplished and talented certified public accountant who currently serves as general auditor for General Motors Corp.

During the open discussion following Mr. Watson’s address, there were some very interesting and challenging questions and positions forwarded regarding economics, advocacy and leadership within the Black community.

I raised the idea that effective Black leadership must first define its mission. What is Black leadership fighting against and what is it fighting for?


For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, the overwhelming majority of local and national Black leadership identified the dismantling of “Jim Crow” segregation as its mission. From the initial Montgomery Improvement Association organized boycotts of segregated public transportation to ‘sit-ins’ at segregated public facilities throughout the South and North, there was general consensus that “Jim Crow” segregation (separate and extremely unequal) was an instrument of White supremacy.

There were, however, sharp differences as to what the end product of this struggle should look like. Some Blacks advocated that we strengthen and develop existing Black institutions (Black Nationalism). Others advocated that we immerse ourselves into already existing White dominated institutions (Black Integration & Assimilation).

Out of this dichotomy we find the further emergence and development of the Black Power and Black Liberation Movements.  For now, I’ll let historians ponder as to what approach should have, could have or would have been best.

During the Leadership Summit, some folks proposed that the current struggle is basically about economic development and that Blacks need to start businesses. It was suggested that if Blacks embrace entrepreneurship, hire and promote within our communities, it would go a long way toward reducing Black unemployment and other problems.

I pointed out, that first of all, any mention of Black economic development without a serious discussion of Reparations for Slavery is half-hearted, ill advised and fails to address the realities of both historical and current structural inequalities concerning the accumulation of Black wealth.

Secondly, the majority of Blacks are not going to become entrepreneurs and never have been. Nationally, the average net worth of a Black female-headed household is approximately $5.

Like the majority of Americans, we are working folks: wage earners. We draw a paycheck, pay taxes and consume. That’s what most U.S. citizens have been socialized to do. Even during those moments when the U.S. economy is ‘healthy,’ the savings and investment habits of Americans are lacking compared to other industrialized nations.

Someone also mentioned American Jews as a group that Blacks should emulate. They were described as independent, economically strong, financially savvy and able to exercise significant political influence and power. What wasn’t mentioned is that Jews have established national sovereignty through the establishment of their own nation-state, Israel.

Jews have also received reparations for the Holocaust. They continue to both hunt down and prosecute any surviving WWII Nazis and confiscate their business and personal assets as well.

In addition, many U.S. Jews enjoy dual citizenship as citizens of both the United States and Israel. Some may have even served in both militaries. For example, former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emmanuel served in the Israeli Defense Force.

So again, the question of mission regarding Black leadership. We currently have more Black elected and appointed officials than existed 50 years ago, but continue to be politically marginalized and taken for granted. We have a Black President of the United States but experience unprecedented neighborhood violence, double-digit unemployment, failing schools, mass incarceration, police misconduct and dysfunctional cultural and family dynamics.

We have many Black folks who are leaders within their respective professions and vocations. The majority work in the public sector and some in the corporate realm. A smaller number are self-employed. However, the vast majority of these folks do not comprise Black leadership. They are simply Black folk who work in a leadership capacity for others (government, private sector, non-profits) or themselves. We need not continue to confuse their individual success with Black group achievement.

Black leaders work on behalf of Black people. They may or may not do so exclusively. They may work on behalf of the poor or marginalized in general, but they make it clear through their advocacy, organizing, personal sacrifice, philanthropy, policy initiatives and programming that they are committed to social and economic justice on behalf of Black people. They are neither afraid nor ashamed to articulate as much.

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