Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014 08:15 AM -0700
Al Sharpton does not have my ear: Why we need new black leadership now
Here's how the Rev's limitations were on
display yesterday -- as he stood in a pulpit over Mike Brown’s casket
civil rights leaders,
Eric Holder, Politics News
Rev. Al Sharpton (Credit: AP/John Minchillo)
politics in the U.S. is beholden to the space of black death. On
Monday, Michael Brown’s family, friends and loved ones gathered to lay
his body to rest, even though his unjust and untimely death leaves his
community of Ferguson, Missouri, in a state of unrest.
funeral, held in a local black Baptist Church, was reminiscent of so
many familiar rituals of black cultural home-goings: raucous preaching,
the call and response of the audience emboldening those in the pulpit to
“make it plain,” and “tell it all,” while the truths being affirmed
received “hearty amens.”
Black churches are a central part of the
20th century story of American racial politics. Dr. King was the
consummate preacher, flanked by peers like Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev.
Joseph Lowery, and protégés like Rev. Jesse Jackson. Last century,
black churches were the locus of a kind of narrative authority in black
communities – the way black preachers, mostly male, told our story to us
in light of the story of Jesus Christ gave us hope, inspired change and
helped us to make sense of black suffering, to believe that God had a
grander purpose in the sure and steady sacrifice of black bodies, namely
the fashioning of a better, more just America.
It is within that
context, that of the black church and its relationship to black
politics, that we have come over the last three decades to know the
person of Rev. Al Sharpton.
In his sermonic remarks at Michael’s funeral
yesterday, Sharpton tried to assume the mantle of black America’s
spiritual leader, the one with the moral and rhetorical force to move us
toward thinking of Mike’s death as the beginning of a movement, rather
than merely a moment.
Al Sharpton, however, does not have the ear
of this generation, and it is not his leadership that any of us who will
live on the planet for the next half-century or so really needs. To be
clear, I do not believe in the slaying of elders. Black cultural
traditions hold within them a serious reverence for the authority and
wisdom of elder people.
This is not about Sharpton’s age, but
rather about how he has positioned himself in relationship to black
politics. My issue with him resides squarely within the limitations of
his moral and political vision for who and how black people get to be
within the American body politic.
limitations emerged almost immediately in his sermonic remarks as he
stood in a pulpit over Mike Brown’s casket. Unable to resist shaking a
finger at “looters and rioters,” he told them “this is not about you.
This is about justice.” Justice apparently is not about us. Taking a
page from the standard conservative black preacher playbook, he goes on
to rail against a black community that mistakenly thinks the “definition
of blackness” is “about how low you could go.” Among these misguided
black people, there is the apparent sense that “it ain’t black no more
to be successful.” Thus he concludes, that “we have to clean up our
community so we can clean up the United States of America.” We have to
do this because, “nobody is going to help us if we don’t help
ourselves.” Thus, we must quickly dispense with our penchant for “ghetto
To quote Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders, when
asked recently about the helpfulness of clergy to the work in Ferguson,
some of the clergy have been “problematic.” Problematic is putting it
mildly. Sharpton’s words should certainly put to rest those critics who
suggest that black people are never outraged about “black-on-black
crime” and the ills that plague black communities. These sermonic turns
of phrase rise to the level of cliché when set against any number of
sermons preached from black pulpits on Sunday mornings.
that black communities can be saved through self-help is an idea that
emerged during the immediate moment following Reconstruction, when
Northerners and the federal government, weary of helping black people
get on their feet after centuries of slavery and tired of being at odds
with their white Southern brethren, abdicated all sense of
responsibility to fledgling, newly freed black communities. In response
to this massive depletion of government resources, black communities
turned inward, touting a politics of respectability, hoping that if they
merely “acted better” and “more fit,” the nation would accept them.
nearly 140 years now, we have repeated this mantra of “self-help,”
stopping only in limited instances to question whether in fact it is we
who are the problem. But Sharpton’s remarks, his own call for us to
finally deal with the problem of militarized and racist policing of
black communities, suggests that we are not in fact the problem.
remarks did not meet a contradiction they did not embrace. While
demanding that Mike Brown’s death be a turning point for the nation,
Sharpton also suggested that the real turning point needed to be first within
black communities. That kind of argument is deeply dishonest, and
places Sharpton adjacent to more robust traditions of prophetic
leadership in the black church that have called the nation to account
for failing to meet its stated democratic ideals.
If the U.S.
would “clean up its act,” this would necessarily mean a real commitment
to due process, protection of voting rights, a livable wage, the
dissolution of the prison industrial complex, funding of good public
education at both K-12 and college levels, a serious commitment to
affirmative action, food security and full reproductive justice for all
women. Those are the kinds of conditions under which black communities,
and all communities, could thrive. That kind of commitment to the ideals
of democracy would require us, as my friend activist Marlon Peterson
did recently, to “ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what
your country can undo for you.”
These young people, some
more militant than others, some whose understandable nihilism and “don’t
give a f___” attitudes show up as militancy, are looking for leaders
with the courage to tell the truth.
The inconvenient truth is that
the continued machinations of racism and its devastating and
traumatizing impact upon communities of color will be the undoing of our
country. Sharpton stuck to safe truths, convenient ones, about the
problem of militarized policing, particularly in black communities.
Sharpton chose not to be a prophetic voice for the people of Ferguson
but rather to do the work that the Obama administration
sent him to do. That work entailed the placating of the people by
ostensibly affirming their sense of injustice, while disaffirming their
right to a kind of righteous rage in the face of such injustice. If the
nation does not believe in and protect its people, we should not be
surprised when the people no longer believe the idea of the nation
itself. Absent strong federal intervention, this is exactly what should
and will happen.
A recent New York Times poll found
that 20 percent of African-Americans disapprove of Obama’s anemic
response to the crisis in Ferguson. That disapproval rating is
incredibly high when you consider that the president’s approval rating
in black communities usually hovers at or above 90 percent. While Eric
Holder’s presence and the Department of Justice’s civil rights
investigation are welcome, a visit from the president would be, too.
Nobody is trying to hear excuses about the separation of powers. The
civil rights that African-Americans have enjoyed for fleeting moments
across the centuries are a direct result of strong federal action, often
in the face of obstructionists wagging fingers about the infringement
upon “states’ rights.”
The kind of anemic truth-telling in which
Sharpton trafficked will also be the undoing of mainstream black
churches. Their heavily male leadership, their refusal to blend real
political critique with substantive theology, and the investment of
black male preachers in being both figureheads of the movement and
friends of those with political power rather than fighters for real
change run the risk of rendering the black church an institution
increasingly irrelevant to 21st century political change.
optics of the heavily black male preachers and preachers-by-proxy
including Sharpton, T.D. Jakes and Martin Luther King III, who showed up
and had a front row seat at the funeral, suggest that this is exactly
the kind of outdated model that we are being asked to invest in again.
Jesse Jackson, who had been the subject of vitriol early last week, sat a
few rows back in the audience, clearly dethroned from a place of either
honor or leadership or relevance.
It is easy in times like these
to suggest that there is a crisis in black leadership, to pathologize
black people further by suggesting that we do not have the political
acumen to figure out the right direction in which to head. But as I
speak to activists on the ground and prepare to ride this weekend to
Ferguson with people from across the country, I believe we should give
the emerging leadership credit for, at the very least, knowing what kind
of leaders they do not want.
They are not invested in
leaders who emerge from churches using Christian theology to placate
them, to “pray over them and send them home at the end of each night” as
Philip Agnew noted. Churches, like Greater St. Mark’s Church,
that act as gathering spaces and treatment spaces for organizers and
tear gas victims, seem to be acceptable. But “the church” as the arbiter
of the narrative of this moment and any emerging movement has been
abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.
generation of people has grown up with the dethroned gods of Generation X
and the failures of political courage that have marked the Hip-Hop
Generation. The most faith they have, hubristic though it may turn out
to be, is in themselves to be agents of change. But they will not invest
in a nation-state project that hands them black presidents alongside
dead unarmed black boys in the street. These are irreconcilable
contradictions. And these are non-conciliatory times.