Figments of the Racist Imagination

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    Hold the presses!

    Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, those bad “Black militant” leaders who all these years have exercised a Svengali-like influence over the masses have lost their clout.

    So says Black conservative pundit John McWhorter in the July 17 The New Republic magazine. Writing at his oiliest, McWhorter begins his article by breezily asserting, “Quiet as it’s kept, the era of the ‘militant’ black leader is over” and plugs in the standard-issue conservative denunciations of Sharpton’s and Jackson’s actions of two decades ago.

    Less insightful analysts might regard Sharpton’s gaining his own political prime-time talk show on MSNBC, and his central coordinating role in July’s multiracial 100-city protests of the Trayvon Martin verdict, among other things, as evidence he’s more influential than ever. McWhorter, however, dismisses such a reading:

    “But there are not, and never have been any new versions of the old Jesse and Al. Not a single young preacher or politician has even started to acquire national influence by taking a page from their old playbooks. The times have changed. If the more pessimistic strains in black America can be slow to fully acknowledge progress, we can take heart from the fact that Al Sharpton will be 60 next year, and a young version of his young self is now inconceivable as a national figure.”

    Are those sighs of relief I hear out in the land?

    Or laughter?

    What else can one say about a piece which, after sketching some of Sharpton’s and Jackson’s sins of the 1980s and 1990s, has this sentence: “Today’s black leaders don’t strike notes like that: Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, and Allen West aren’t given to catcalls about yarmulkes.”

    Allen West? The Tea-Party Florida Republican (his district was less than 5 percent Black) whose outrageously loony behavior made him a one-term Congressman?

    More than anything else, McWhorter’s likening Allen West to Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov.Deval Patrick, two Democratic politicians of solid achievements, as a “Black leader” gives the game away.

    He’s talking about in that imaginary world White conservatives and centrists long ago created to fortify their need to feel superior to Blacks – and which Black conservatives have dedicated themselves to keeping insulated from any winds of reality.  Real black people don’t exist there, only figments of the racist imagination – Mammy, the Black Buck of “Birth of a Nation,” the various Stephin Fetchits of other old Hollywood films, and especially since the 1960s the loud, angry, white-hating “black militant.”

    In fact, McWhorter’s weak tirade is just an updating of the Jim Crow-era segregationists’ assertion that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “communist” and the Black freedom struggle was “communist-inspired.” (And, one has to say, it’s cousin to today’s conservatives’ describing President Obama as a “socialist” and foreign-born.) But dissecting it is important in order to reveal the three truths that lie behind conservatives’ denunciations of “Black leaders.”

    The first is that it’s conservatives, and some centrists, not Black people themselves, who are mired in the old “Negro Leader” model of race relations. Martin Luther King’s brilliant intellectual and oratorical skills, and the large-scale mobilizing capabilities of the national civil rights organizations obscured the fact that that style of leadership was becoming outdated even before King’s great “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

    After all, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a mass movement that emphasized local organizations and ordinary citizens challenging segregation at the ground level of their own communities.

    Secondly, the denunciation of “black leaders” has always actually been a thinly-disguised condemnation of the Black masses. That survives today in conservatives’ declarations that “Black leaders” have beguiled the Black masses to chain themselves up on the Democratic “plantation.” In other words, the Black masses are too stupid to think for themselves.

    Thirdly, the record of the last four decades shows just the opposite. That is, the Black masses and the Black leadership cohort worked together – increasingly, on equal terms – to transform their relationship to and in the Democratic Party from merely a voting bloc group to a group that has a significant role in leading the party. That transformation, which owed a great deal to the insurgent presidential campaigns of both Rep. Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and Jackson himself in 1984 and 1988, led directly to Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first Black president.

    In other words, as proved by the recent Trayvon Martin protests – led in part by Al Sharpton – the Black masses and the broad, variegated cohort of Black leadership have so finely-tuned their political “militancy,” that as a group they can be outsiders and insiders at the same time.

    McWhorter, of course, doesn’t want to acknowledge this. He and his confederates would rather live with their imaginary straw-men and -women in a world of fantasy.

    Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.

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