Reflections on the Black Agenda Special
Last Sunday MSNBC aired a special on “The Black Agenda” hosted by Ed Shultz, who is rapidly emerging as the foremost advocate of working class interests in the commercial media. The usual suspects from the black community were called upon once again to plead the cause of African Americans before the nation. Although there were a variety of black voices – some would say a cacophony – the stars were a small group of preachers and philosophers.
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were the elder statesman of this group, but Drs. Michael Eric Dyson and Cornell West were the brightest stars of the moment. As I analyzed the composition of these panels, I knew the chances were better than even that the discussion would soon degenerate into a tower of Babel. Alas Dr. West and Rev. Sharpton did have a smack down before it was over. I thought they were about to slap each other for a minute!
Observing the panels tasked with discussing the economic plight of the black community, and what social policy options the government should adopt to deal with such nagging problems as sub-standard education, out of wedlock births and the ‘Prison Industrial complex,” which is the term of art for the high incidence of incarceration among young black men, I wondered why Dr. Dyson and West were there at all.
Did we not have enough preachers dominating the discourse among black Americans already? For the last half century the discourse about the fate of black Americans have been monopolized by clerical voices. Martin Luther King, Leon Sullivan, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan are all men of the cloth.
Hence the thoughtful observer is compelled to wonder: In a discussion about policy matters in the Twenty First Century do we really need to hear from a Princeton trained philosopher, who is also an ordained Baptist minister and a Princeton Professor of Religion who talks like a Baptist preacher – such as Dyson and West? Well, if I had been putting the panel together neither would have been on it. As a former Professor of Afro-American history, I am well aware of the historic and contemporary importance of the black church, but it is high time for a separation of the affairs of church and state in the black community.
Some preachers, like Jackson and Sharpton, are able to clearly separate the two realms. And by virtue of their long history in the struggle, where they participated in bringing about monumental changes, they have earned an honored place in any important discussion on the present condition and collective strivings of black Americans. Yet if we are to find solutions to these intractable problems we need less rhapsodizing about our hopes and dreams, and more strategizing about realizable policy options. This means, of course, that we have to begin to choose spokesman on the basis of expertise rather than their public relations profile.
If I’d had my druthers Cornell West would have been replaced with William Julius Wilson, Professor of social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the world’s foremost authority on the problems of the postindustrial city and the plight of the black poor. And Michael Eric Dyson would have been replaced by Dr. Bernard Anderson, author of the economic section in the annual Urban League’s “State Of Black America” report.
Anderson holds a PhD in economics from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the foremost authority in the world on the position of black Americans in the American economy…especially black workers. Dr. Anderson began his career with a land mark scholarly study “The Negro in the Public Utility Industry” which was published over forty years ago. He has written many scholarly papers.
Reigning Authority on Black Economic Issues!
At a recent conference on the economic crisis in America Dr. Anderson, now a Professor in the Wharton school, stressed several critical points: The depth and breadth of the economic crisis has worsened, increasing racial disparities, and threatening to wipe out gains made towards reducing those disparities in the 1990s. The unemployment crisis reflects a structural change in our economy.The link between job creation and economy growth has been weakened. Economic growth no longer results in job creation. Thus in recent recessions we have experienced the phenomenon of “jobless recovery.” Direct public job creation by the government is imperative to economic recovery.
I first met Bernard Anderson during the mid1960’s when we were both working with the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan in developing the Opportunities Industrialization Centers in Philadelphia. Bernie was writing his PhD thesis at the time, and I was developing a “Minority History” curriculum, which was adopted by the Philadelphia Board Of Education under the leadership of Dr. Connie Clayton, then spread to 100 cities through OIC. Many of these ideas would find their way into the formation of the first full fledged degree granting Black Studies department in America, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
It was in Amherst that I first met Bill Wilson in 1969; he was on the committee that interviewed me and recommended me for a Professorship, although I was only twenty seven and a college dropout! Dr. Wilson set out to bring a new understanding of the causes of urban poverty and its influence on the disorganization of the family and other deviant behavior among the “underclass,” which is the fashionable term for what Karl Marx called the “lumpenproletariat.” Way back then Dr. Wilson was driven by a desire to understand the role that social forces like class, education, geography, cultural values and racial discrimination, played in the persistence of widespread poverty among black Americans in the world’s most affluent society.
Over the last few decades Professor Wilson has written a series of scholarly books, each a seminal text in the field of race relations i.e. color and class in America. In these in-depth cutting edge works Dr. Wilson has instructed the nation on the problems on race and poverty in American cities: “The Declining significance of Race,” “The Truly Disadvantaged,” “When Work Disappears,” “Sociology and the Public interests,” etc. And early on he wrote book which presents a comparative analysis of instititional racism in South Africa and the USA: “Racism, Power and Privilege,”
When compared to the weighty works of William J. Wilson and Bernard Anderson, the writings of Cornell West and Michael Dyson is light weight pretentious prattle! Yet even if one finds the writings of these men profound; they do not address serious policy questions with any depth. On the other hand both Wilson and Anderson are eminent scholars who have been seriously studying these problems for nearly half a century!!!!!
Need I say more? While charismatic leaders are an essential element in building mass transformative movements, in order to succeed one must also have able theoreticians to properly assess the situation, identify the critical problems, and devise systematic solutions based upon the prevailing relationship of forces. To accomplish this we need fewer preachers – sacred or secular – and more hardnosed policy wonks!