“They’ll Take it From Me”: (Dis)respecting Black Leadership

Appearing on the 2015 Left Forum panel From Ferguson to Baltimore and Beyond Thenjiwe McHarris informs us that

the left has to grapple with racism within the left. (Applause) The left has to acknowledge the ways in which white supremacy operates within the left. And the second is respecting black leadership. (Applause) It’s not just what you think or you say but something you actively do. And the truth is if you have not asked yourself how am I respecting black leadership then guess what? You probably don’t respect black leadership. (Applause) And so the truth is I believe we need a united front in this country and around the world. But that does not happen unless white supremacy is not just addressed, acknowledged and confronted but eradicated in the left. And it also does not happen unless black leadership is not respected, acknowledged and allowed to be which is where we have always been which is leading in the front.

My response? Guilty as charged. During the presidency of Barack Obama, I have never once asked myself whether I’m “respecting black leadership”. Indeed, I have been profoundly disrespectful as our first African American president signed off on trillion dollar bailouts to the criminal banking industry, prosecuted whistle blowers, targeted U.S. citizens for assassination, and failed to act as climate catastrophe stared us in the face.

Of course, I was equally disrespectful a decade before when a black face was entrusted with presenting fake evidence to the U.N. General Assembly for a suicidal war, one which would subsequently be presided over by an African American Secretary of State and National Security Advisor.

And I was just as disrespectful to the first African American mayor of New York, David Dinkins who, when asked whether he would be able to implement huge cuts in social services and education then being demanded in the first wave of fiscal austerity, responded that he was not only prepared but more able to do so than his predecessor. Why? Rather than protest, his core left-liberal constituency “would take it from me.”

And what of those who “respected black leadership” during this period? Some of them were among those warmly applauding at the premier gathering of the radical left. All this shows that we are still taking it-that we are still lining up zombie-like behind whatever multicultural figurehead neoliberal elites have chosen to sell their rancid goods, completely oblivious to the cynical game they have played at our expense for two generations. We either stop “respecting black (or female, queer, disabled or trans) leadership” when they do so, or we will remain accomplices in precisely the politics which we claim to oppose and deplore.

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3 thoughts on ““They’ll Take it From Me”: (Dis)respecting Black Leadership”

  1. This title of this book drew me into it.

    “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality” by Walter Benn Michaels.

    A jury I sat on last year drew the class line between three professional managerial women, and a cleaning cleaning lady whose life was, and would remain, incomprehensible to them.

    This, another confirmation to me of class being the more relevant and divisive issue, in practice, than gender.

    One of the highly educated women gave me a chill when she laughed derisively in the scarred face of the cleaning lady when she presented her injuries to the jury.

    Of course, I had to share my repulsion in response to her repulsive behavior with the other jury members to contemplate for a few hours after we reached an impasse.

    No special treatment for women from me. Nothing to her I wouldn’t give to another man. That’s equality.

  2. My first thought was to wonder whether McHarris distinguishes black leadership from leaders who are black. I won’t presume to know how she would respond to your thoughts.

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