Your Black Men: Dr. Boyce Watkins on The New York Times

Dr. Boyce Watkins

I read an article in The New York Times asking if Senator Barack Obama was the “end of black politics”. I couldn’t help but stop for a second and say “huh”? The statement confused me, since I wasn’t sure what the guy was trying to say. Was he saying that older Civil Rights leaders are no longer relevant? Was he saying that promoting a Black agenda is no longer important? I wasn’t sure. I only knew that, like CNN’s modestly degrading “Black in America” series, people were talking about this article. So I took a second to read the damn thing.

Personally, I am not so fond of the idea that a non-black publication and non-black journalist are writing articles trying to possibly kill Black politics. Not that they can’t have an opinion, but it always seems that their opinions of Black people are more important than the opinions that Black people have of Black people (notice how excited everyone was about Black in America on CNN). I grow tired of non-Black media, corporations and media personalities heavily influencing the direction of Black leadership in America. This is yet another reminder that African Americans must work to secure and patronize our own media outlets. Our socio-political destiny should not be determined by the New York Times. That would be like Ebony Magazine explaining to Jews that Nazis weren’t as bad as they think and this whole holocaust remembrance thing is just a waste of time.

I went through the article and thought about it. Essentially, the author was highlighting the generational rift in Black leadership, the one in which young hotshots (I guess I am in that group) are pitted against the tried and true, “I marched with Dr. King so you don’t know anything” generation. I respect my elders, but sometimes they think that way.

Personally, I have been frustrated by this rift and I’ve grappled with it. At the same time, I am equally frustrated by the desire of some to throw 40 years of hard work under the bus because we have the chance to have a Black President. It is disturbing that in spite of what many Black leaders have achieved over the past 400 years, people think that having a Black President is the single most significant achievement of any African American in history. Sorry, but it’s not.

Yes, getting enough votes to have a President with a Black face is important, but not the most important thing any Black man or woman has accomplished. Those who fought against slavery made the greatest sacrifices. Those who died during the Civil Rights movement made a grave sacrifice. Those of us who’ve climbed the ladder at predominantly White institutions have allowed the money and power of these institutions to blind us into believing that we’ve achieved more than we actually have. We are like the newly-signed NFL player who rolls through the hood with a beautiful woman and a new Mercedes (not even paid for), looking down on the hard working father who owns a grocery store to get his kids through school. For some reason, the wealth and validation of predominantly White institutions feeds into our own internal commitment to White supremacy by making us feel that we are more important than those who truly serve and support the masses of Black people. This is the same reason that Black professors choose to teach at Harvard over Howard, or why an athlete or entertainer feels that getting signed to a corporate endorsement makes him better than other entertainers who have lost favor with corporate America. If the American public gives you a carrot, that usually makes you a bunny who has to hop for it. Being POPULAR is not the same as being POWERFUL. What’s worse is that, for many of us, the carrot doesn’t even belong to us. So, many members of the Black middle and upper class, because they have no true ownership in the institutions with which they boast affiliation, are not much more than highly paid sharecroppers. But like an abused housewife, we avoid punishment by seeking validation from our historical abusers (no one wants to be the “bad negro” in the office) and it’s hard to maintain a commitment to Blackness when Blackness is not politically and economically convenient. In fact, Blackness gets you into trouble! (You should have seen the scowls I got after Bill O’Reilly’s last two attacks)

The author in the Times piece stated that Barack Obama’s success may cause “Black politics to disappear into America politics”. In other words, Blackness would become as coincidental as having red hair, or shopping at Best Buy. The premise is that a politician with a Black agenda can’t possibly expect to amount to anything in American society, since they would never be able to defeat a White opponent with broad White support. A businessman serving the Black community would not be able to possibly earn as much money as the man across the street catering his Business to the cultural norms of White America. A Black manager will never climb the corporate ladder if he doesn’t properly assimilate and denounce dimensions of his Blackness that make others nervous. I can’t disagree with this, since Blackness is not the easiest way to get power in a Capitalist Democracy (where money and political power are the rarest and most cherished commodities).

In spite of our temptations to let go of Blackness, the reduction of Blackness into a coincidental attribute is something that should concern us all. While I am fond of the idea of people respecting all dimensions of my humanity (i.e. CNN tends to only call me when they want to talk about “black stuff” – which makes me want to work with international networks), I choose to maintain a strong racial identity. One of the limitations of integration is that by being dependent upon predominantly White institutions to feed our children and pay our bills, we will remain subject to cultural domination. At my current position at Syracuse, no one hates me for having Black skin, they hate me for associating with “those people” (meaning Black males in prison, Black male athletes and African Americans from lower economic backgrounds).

The ultimate questions for us (which should be answered within ourselves and our community, not in the New York Times) should be the following:

1) What does it mean to be Black (to you)? I can’t tell you the answer to that question, but you should definitely answer it. Ultimately, we should be challenged to think beyond our prior limitations, those that say graduating from Harvard or Yale (with little connection to our community) automatically implies that we are a high Black achiever. The same is true for getting elected to office, getting a job promotion or having a high income. Not that these things are insignificant, but you also have a right to make your Blackness as meaningful as a Muslim’s commitment to Islam, or an American’s commitment to patriotism. Drawing these clear lines helps clarify tough choices you’ll have to make later, when someone tells you that “letting go of all that black stuff can help you make more money.” Your Blackness is like your religious or sexual virtue: If you never draw firm lines, then people will always convince you to sacrifice just a little bit more.

2) Does a Black President automatically become a Black leader, or does he become an American leader who happens to be Black? Barack Obama’s successful candidacy would imply that he is going to be an American leader, with a direct responsibility to the American people. This argues that we are still in need of Black leaders to directly promote and maintain a Black agenda without the biases that come from pandering to a fundamentally racist society. Someone has to be ready to hit the streets during the next Hurricane Katrina, Sean Bell shooting or Jena Six incident. Dumping Black leadership without finding empowered and independent replacements is a very dangerous move. You don’t kill your mother because you found a new daddy.

3) If we have a need for Black leaders, where do we get them? Not usually from mainstream American politics. American institutions are still too sick with the disease of racism to allow an individual to be both an effective Black leader and a powerful mainstream political leader, at least right now (Remember: “The O’Reilly Factor” is still the number one cable news show, which says something about our country’s mindset). Political leaders, by virtue of the fact that they are forced to “play the political middle”, apologetically pander and even demean African Americans in order to get more votes from a culturally self-centered constituency (note Barack’s 10 million apologies and denunciations), are not typically empowered enough to truly promote a Black agenda. You see, true power is not based on ACCESS to power. It is based on the ABILITY and the DESIRE to use that power for the greater good. A Black President could certainly do a great deal to help Black people and could even wipe out starvation in Ethiopia. The problem is that political constraints would not give that individual the desire or ability to do so.

– For the same reasons I mentioned above, we would also not get Black leadership from high ranking officials in media or corporate America. I am a Finance Professor and I can tell you that the incentives of American capitalism are not typically aligned with those of Black people, particularly the urban poor. Praying to the God of American money means you carry around a lot of demons.

– A reader made a great comment on my blog last month. They said “The smartest negro on the plantation was not the house negro or the field negro. The smartest negro on the plantation was the slave who ran away.” The problem is that, while the runaway slave was, in hindsight, the greatest visionary on the plantation, she was also the most disdained. She was the one who never had a chance to work in the “Big House”, and she was the one that all the other slaves chose not to associate with. When it comes to power in America, one of the great consequences of integration is that it leads to “dis-integration” of your cultural norms, Black identity and Black culture. The only solution to this problem is to use the spirit of the runaway slave to actively engage in the building of political and economic institutions in the Black community, those that are free from the cultural sacrifices we all make by trying to climb the White American corporate or governmental ladder. At that point, new relationships with White America can be established, interactions based on mutual respect and cooperation. I can say, for example, that I became truly liberated as a Black man when I learned to validate myself, educate myself and own my own business (I know that my university will never give me awards, promotions or validation for what I do in the Black community, because my work runs counter to the incentives created by the racially exclusive foundation of most American universities – in other words, there is an eternal price to pay when you go 130 years without hiring any Black professors). But building our own institutions requires patience, courage and a square ability to let go of our need for others to tell us that we are good or important. You are still significant, even if you don’t get that promotion.

To make a long story short, I don’t agree with the New York Times writer that Barack Obama will be the end of Black politics (the author is an admitted outsider to Black America). I am even offended that the New York Times feels that they have the ability to try to tell me that Black Politics is dead. Black people decide if Black politics lives or dies, and we are the ones who choose our destiny.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” For more information, visit


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