In “Beyond the Civil Rights Industry,” Eva Thorne and Eugene Rivers argue that black Americans have been sold out by most national black leaders. Forsaking a practical or even progressive politics that might advance the lives of the black poor, the authors contend that black leaders—those they deem the “Civil Rights Industry”—have opted instead for a symbolic game of politics defined by compromise, personal reward, and the neglect of those most vulnerable in black communities.
Of course this criticism of traditional black leadership is not new. Many academics and community members routinely complain about the absence or ineffectiveness of national black leaders in their battle against such pressing issues as AIDS, incarceration, and punitive welfare policies. To be sure, some elected officials, like Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr., have taken principled stands in opposition to the regressive policy agendas of the last three presidents. On average, however, most national black leaders have failed to leverage their access, power, and resources into a progressive policy agenda that would fundamentally better the lives of those most marginal in communities of color, in particular black communities.
In light of such failures, I join with Thorne and Rivers in calling for a new black political agenda and leadership. That, however, is where my agreement with the authors ends. For after presenting an insightful analysis of traditional black elites, Thorne and Rivers make a ninety-degree turn to the right and offer up the black church as the new source of leadership for black communities and a new politics of expediency for the black poor. The authors specifically argue that the moral authority of the church—its roots within black communities and its political clout and access to power—make it the ideal candidate to lead struggles looking for practical solutions for issues ranging from the increasing incarceration of black youth to the lack of family-wage jobs to the impact of AIDS in Africa.
I must admit to being baffled by the suggestion that the black church should lead the fight for the black poor. Anyone familiar with faith-based institutions in black communities—those of us raised in the black church—know that it is the rare congregation that is out front on progressive issues and policy concerns, in particular those that empower rather than manage the black poor. I say this not to discount the long history of the black church as a service provider of last resort. Whether it is through social ministries, public programs, or the work of church-affiliated women’s groups, black faith-based institutions have provided needed resources and goods to the poor in many communities. But, while the church has been willing to service those in need, it has repeatedly shied away from engaging in a politics that would empower these same individuals, neighborhoods, and groups.
While the church or faith-based institutions in black communities have never acted as a monolithic whole, more often than we wish to admit those directly in charge of the church have promoted an exclusionary and moralistic political and social agenda that positions the church outside of truly radical politics, which is intent on transforming the condition of the black poor here and abroad. For example, most churches refuse to protect and extend the reproductive choices of black women, especially poor black women, who confront the greatest restrictions. Similarly, many black churches have been slow and reluctant to provide services to those with HIV and AIDS in black communities, with little attempt to empower those segments of black communities most at risk—black men who sleep with men, black gay men, and injection drug users. Furthermore, while many black congregations have been negatively affected by President Clinton’s welfare bill and the criminialization and incarceration of black youth, few have actively involved themselves in political campaigns to challenge such policies.
Again, I am not interested in condemning all black clergy, as Thorne and Rivers do of all civil rights leaders. As we can identify those select black officials who engage in a different, more progressive politics, so to can we name those churches attempting to make a difference in their communities. Still, individual congregations and ministers taking a progressive stand and demanding not only resources but also justice are the exception to the rule. We should be clear by now that middle-class leaders, whether they be the old-guard of the civil rights movement or the old-guard of the black church, have a personal interest in protecting their own mobility and access by managing and often disempowering the most vulnerable and seemingly threatening—at least to the status quo—members of black communities. Thus, promoting a new middle-class leadership out of the black church, surely to be dominated by men, instead of more organic leadership from those who most often populate the bottom—poor women—seems fundamentally wrong and a continuation of the same old hierarchical style of disconnected leadership that Thorne and Rivers condemn in their article.
I am sure by now Thorne and Rivers have labeled me another one of those impractical academics engaging in a rhetorical exercise of political correctness with no real sense of how the black poor live, let alone survive. Who am I to suggest that clergy who everyday administer church ministries that feed hungry children and tutor kids lost in a failing educational system are not positioned to define a new black political agenda that focuses on the poor? Without responding by reference to my family history, let me just say that my questioning of the political wherewithal of black faith-based leaders to represent the varied and often stigmatized interests of the black poor has everything to do with the religious ideology that guides their work and shapes their political and moral vision.
For example, I find it ironic, if not hypocritical, that Thorne and Rivers would suggest that the black church is ready to provide leadership around the issue of AIDS in Africa. This, of course, is the same black church that has been largely absent from sustained political struggle to confront AIDS in black communities in this country. This is also the same black church that is structured around a narrow conservative doctrine of moral exclusion, degrading same-sex love and vilifying substance abuse. How can we expect this institution to be an effective dispenser of services for all those with AIDS, let alone a leader of political struggles around AIDS in black communities here and abroad?
Similarly, how is an institution steeped in patriarchy and sexism going to be able to generate and implement a political agenda that speaks to the needs of poor black women, those who constitute the greatest percentage of the black poor? I cannot think of any institution rooted in black communities that has been more anti-feminist or has exploited the work of women while barring or limiting their access to the pulpit and other centers of authority within the church. Beyond the specific politics of the church, there is the question of how this new strata of black leaders will respond to attacks on black women’s rights around the world. I have yet to hear, for example, a significant outcry from black ministers—especially those, led by Rivers, who met with President Bush—when as one of his first acts in office Bush barred federal aid to any international group that provided family-planning counseling and advocacy, even when that group used their own money for those purposes. This policy will increase the death and suffering of black poor women around the world. Reversing it must be made a priority by any black leadership wishing to transform the condition of the black poor around the world.
Considering all this, the question for me is not whether black ministers can form an alternative source of leadership in black communities that can engage in pragmatic politics. They have in the past and they will again. Need we forget that many of the current leaders, who Thorne and Rivers would condemn, originally came out of the black church. The question, instead, is whether the pragmatic politics of this group is anything new or different from that witnessed by the “Civil Rights Industry” or Booker T. Washington. There is a long history of black leaders genuflecting at the feet of white officials for money to solve “our” problems. I fear that, in the end, if we follow Thorne and Rivers’s lead, we will find ourselves with a 21st-century version of this politics of accommodation. Never one to downplay the importance of providing for people’s basic needs, I just ask Thorne and Rivers to tell the truth. This is not a new or liberating or particularly moral political strategy they are advocating. It is, instead, a practical and limiting and conservative politics, not only in its view of the state, but more disappointingly in its view of what poor black people deserve and what organized and mobilized communities can do.