This Black Leader or That Black Leader?
Obama or J.C. Watts? King or Malcolm? DuBois or Garvey? DuBois or Booker T. Washington? Frederick Douglass or David Walker?
For nearly three-hundred years, African-American leaders have been cast in one of two broad categories: radical or accommodationist, progressive or conservative. Social and political views ranging from conservative to moderate to progressive isn’t unique to African-American communities. It’s a range that people from every ethnicity fit into; it’s a set of ideas and ideals attractive to people without regard to ethnic background.
But there there are at least two aspects to this ideological range that may be fairly pronounced if not unique in the African-American context: racial identity and racial independence. I was reminded of this listening to the interview with William Pannell.
Historically, certain parts of the spectrum came to define African-American or Black identity. The more radical and progressive, the more “Black” you were deemed to be. The social conservatism and accommodation to segregation of a Booker T. Washington was cast as a betrayal of black identity and equality while the progressive and integrationist stance of DuBois took on the seal of “genuine” Black identity. At least since the time of DuBois and Washington, conservative African Americans have been ethnically suspect while politically progressive counterparts have symbolized true “blackness.”
The fiery rhetoric of Malcolm X, for example, castigated conservative Southern leaders in various Civil Rights groups as “handkerchief head Negroes” bowing to the whims of Whites. President Barack Obama faced suspicion not only from Whites but also from African-American groups who wondered why he would announce his candidacy in Chicago on the day Tavis Smiley hosted his “State of Black America” meeting in Atlanta. Smiley’s panel discussion was dotted with jokes and innuendos questioning the validity of Obama’s claim to blackness. It didn’t help matters much as Obama ran a presidential campaign that steered a wide course around traditional Black political groups on the left and the right. Failing to take the necessary place on the spectrum and trod in established Black identity paths, Obama found himself ridiculed and suspected in some quarters.
What’s the point? Political and social positions are not simply positions on a political or social spectrum if you’re an African American. Positions on the spectrum are associated with your ethnic or racial identity. Politics and person are fused together. Issues and identity determine one another. I suspect this is either unique or far more prominent in the African American context where such positions had a direct and sometimes deadly impact on persons and community.
Here’s another thing I suspect is very different in Black versus other contexts: Certain positions and associations also raise questions about an African-American leader’s independence. To be politically conservative results in suspicions about a leader’s autonomy. Is he or she “owned” by White counterparts and constituencies? Whose agenda do they represent?
During his brief and provocative bid to be the next Republican presidential nominee, Herman Cain found himself facing down questions about his blackness. But had his campaign not imploded, it’s likely he would also have faced some sharp questions and criticisms about his association with White conservatives. Was he “owned” by those associations? Was he the new Booker T. Washington? If Justice Clarence Thomas thought he received a hi-tech lynching during the Anita Hill scandal, the Black community’s treatment of Cain running against a politically progressive African-American incumbent President (stop for a moment to ponder how close we came to living out this scenario unimaginable just five years ago!) would have made Thomas’ hearing a love fest by comparison. The guilt by association that would have befallen Cain undoubtedly would have created great personal anguish and public ridicule for Cain. How he would have escaped being viewed as “the White man’s lackey” and “traitor to the cause” inside the African-American community would have been beyond me.
Again, I suspect that this would be unique or at least a far more prominent dynamic inside the African-American community.
The Cost of Black-White Evangelical Associations
I spend the time explaining this dynamic to make a couple points about Black and White Evangelical cooperation.
Suspect identity. I long for everyone to know something more about the costs African Americans pay in their own communities for cooperating across ideological and ethnic lines. We all, as one dear brother put it to me recently, “take kicks in the teeth” when we come to the table to work together at reconciliation and cooperation. However, the kicks African Americans take aren’t limited to the kicks prompted by mistakes or mis-speaking, the kind of faux pax we all make when handling sensitive subjects like “race”. There are also kicks coming from some who resent or at least question the table itself–whether the “table” is membership in a multi-ethnic or predominantly white church, or cooperation in larger evangelical movements and organizations. To have your ethnic identity questioned is a “kick in the gut” more painful than most can imagine. For the gospel, we should and must pay this cost, take this kick. But it’s a cost nonetheless. The brothers at the inter-ethnic table are likely taking one for the team. Awareness of that is helpful.
Suspect loyalty. This is another of the costs raised by cooperation across ethnic, social, and political lines. To break free from the Black political and relational orthodoxy means opening yourself to the charge of betraying the community. That charge comes simply by association in many instances. And it’s a charge no African American really wishes to face. Consider the allegations and castigations faced by men like Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, and Clarence Thomas. Something as simple as arguing the primacy of the biblical gospel over social concerns–something taken for granted in most broader evangelical cooperation–is enough to raise the specter of sell out Tomism for participating African Americans. For the cooperation to hold and African Americans to play a part, there needs to be sensitivity to this issue of perceived disloyalty back in the home community. We can’t think that just because we all agree on keeping the main thing the main thing that there aren’t ramifications and perceptions to be faced in more racialized contexts.
Danger of division. I also want my non-African-American brothers to realize the harmful dynamic of pitting one African American against another. When two white brothers disagree publicly over a theological issue, there’s likely not a community “back home” trying to decide which brother is “black” and therefore which brother to follow. Historically, some white leaders have intentionally played one African American leader against another with the aim of dividing and weakening the community. That’s a history well-known and a strategy much hated in African-American communities. So, when a conflict between two African American religious leaders takes place publicly, care must be taken not to walk into this troubled narrative and trap. Inevitably, pitting two African-American leaders against one another is going to result in (1) one of those leaders losing “black” authenticity in their community, (2) one or both of those leaders being marginalized for their cooperation with “outsiders” to the community, and (3) the White brothers who do the pitting being seen as unconcerned about the Black community and unrighteously attempting to anoint the next Black leader. No one wins. if you’re from outside the African-American community, think very long, hard, and carefully about ever calling some African Americans to take your position in defense against other African Americans. It’s disastrous for everyone, and, frankly, you won’t begin to pay the deeper costs over the longer period that your African American friend will.
Stereotypes and caricatures. As for my brothers who come to the table of cooperation, facing suspicion and questions from some in the community, let’s work hard to avoid stereotyped and caricatured responses to the pressures we feel. We have to be comfortable with the skin we’re in and with the thoughts we think. There’s no necessary relationship between skin color and ethnic identity. Mythic “blackness” can’t be allowed to take precedence over union with Christ and the freedom we find in the Lord. We’re at that table and sometimes feel the internal pressure to represent ourselves according to black hegemonic ideals. Resist the impulse, and resist others at the table when they appear to approach you with the stereotype in mind. Much depends on our enjoying and protecting the freedom to act like Jesus–which means there will be times we sound like we’re against traditional views in the Black community and times where we sound like we’re for them. Jesus has a way of cutting across every ethnic and cultural way of being. We need to embrace that reality and pay the costs associated with rejecting stereotypes and caricatures.
This Black Leader or That Black Leader?
You choose. Honestly, the world is more complex than simply deciding whether you like King or Malcolm, or Obama or Cain. These names are exemplars of positions that themselves have pros and cons. And I can’t imagine any meaningful discussion about theological or political differences in the African-American community that doesn’t at some level imagine differing representatives of those positions. But I can imagine our doing a better job of resisting hegemonic pressure, stereotypes, and divisive discussions that pit brothers and bruthas against one another. We don’t have to agree about strategy in order to avoid problems of association.