Beyond the Generation Gap:
Reflections on the Crisis in Black Political Leadership
The 2002 mayoral race between Cory Booker and Sharpe James illustrates the current crisis in African-American political life both at the national and local levels. Sharpe James represents the Old Guard — those born in the crucible of the late civil rights and Black Power movements. His political stylizations and substance are rooted in racial logic that demands unwavering loyalty. James belongs to a generation that fought hard and won battles at the moment when Black electoral politics was bursting onto the American landscape. The white political machine made it difficult to obtain positions of power within that declining system. In most instances, by the time an African American was elected mayor of a chocolate city there was a rapid decline in both the fiscal and physical infrastructure. Yet, Black mayors have local mystics that emphasize the past in light of a tepid present and uncertain future. They remain homegrown heroes who fought the establishment on the behalf of the Black community.
In contrast, the hip hop generation, which has typically regarded electoral politics with disdain, is coming of age politically. The middle-class members are the harvest of the fields sown by James' generation. Cory Booker's access to an Ivy League education was labored for by his opponent's generation. Despite this, James' generation is hostile to the idea of sharing power with Booker's. While the most thuggish elements of hip hop are the currency of popular culture, the real gangsterization of Newark's political life is on the part of the Sharpe campaign. A number of individuals suffer at the hands of the Sharpe political machine. Street Fight goes into great detail describing the unscrupulous activities of the Sharpe campaign. Name calling, race baiting, and downright intimidation are the hallmarks of the Sharpe political machine. Some would say that this is the nature of local politics and the fallout from the impending transfer of political power from one generation to the next. Street Fight leaves us with the sense that the Old Guard is outdated and there needs to be a change.
A wise man once noted that individuals who demonize a particular subject and individuals who romanticize it have one thing in common: neither has studied the subject deeply. Both Sharpe James and Cory Booker represent different sides of the same impoverished coin. Neither politician is offering the people of Newark a real alternative to the high levels of unemployment and the right wing assault on the poor. Both Booker and James are part of the political crisis in Black political leadership. Being young does not merit political sophistication and a serious political analysis, and harking back to past victory as the justification for holding political office in the present is equally immature.
In fact, one can posit that the crisis in African-American political leadership is not generational but directional. Given the conservative shift in the political climate over the last generation, a serious critique of African-American loyalty to the Democratic Party has been engaged.
The tendency of a new generation of African-American politicians, such as Cory Booker and Congressman Harold Ford, to embrace the conservative strategy of the Democratic Leadership Council, while completely abdicating the radical nature of Black politics — which gave birth to civil rights legislation and other social and economic justice movements — is deeply problematic. The fundamental challenge to the Black political leadership is, how it will adjust to the current political climate — one in which right-wing political discourse shapes public policy.
What is the vision of African-American political leaders for these times? What will Sharpe James and Cory Booker offer to the people of Newark by way of vision in the 2006 election? How will they engage the everyday people of Newark? What are their plans to reduce school overcrowding? What is the plan for developing living wage opportunities in the city? Can they address crime without mandatory minimums? Can they be visionary in their public policy?
Their respective generations and those to come await their answers.
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Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is the National Co-ordinator of the Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq. He is the author of the 2001 book, Urban Souls, and a professor of preaching at the Seminary Consortium of Urban Pastoral Education. He resides in the village of Harlem, New York.