On Black Leadership

May 25, 2012

If our political fights barely rise above the embarrassing displays of violence within the communities that officials are supposedly serving, then it’s time for a radical change in representation.

At the May 15 Orleans Parish School Board meeting, black angst sparked among fellow members around matters of disrespect in the naming of an interim superintendent. After a round of feinting punches, the board voted along black and non-black lines to name an interim.

The racialized school board fight parallels a City Council standoff, which pits white members against black members in absentia. Black members walked out of a meeting that would have put a city charter amendment up for a vote if not for the recalcitrance of a white voting bloc.

Place the aforementioned board skirmishes in the context of the shameful fights that are occurring among the constituents that black elected officials are working for. On April 15, a fight among Sojourner Truth High School students predictably led to their families involving themselves in the scrum resulting in a father hitting another youth with his car. Social media was inappropriately blamed for the cascade of violence. The true culprit is a lack of effective leadership in our homes, institutions and government.

Since Katrina, a 60 percent, African American parish has lost representation in City Hall, majorities on both the school board and City Council as well as numerous positions that influence the direction of the city.

Blacks earn nearly half of white households ($57,593 vs. $30,167), are being expelled and suspended at alarmingly disproportionate rates, are incarcerated seemingly unconsciously and are victimized by police, landlords and criminals. All of which are in the context of “citywide” growth.

Black and brown residents need black elected officials, but we need them to move beyond the land of representation and go towards a state of effective leadership.

Board level posturing may gain moral victories or symbolically patronize constituents, but it doesn’t deliver change. Elected officials who can mobilize resource, people and talent to influence policy won’t have to resort to petty fights, grandstanding or legislative trickery to win political battles.

Leaving the table or proclaiming disrespect isn’t a viable option. In addition, the symbolism of these crude actions fuels the type of crass aggression that occurs in the street.

Black leadership must be judged on an ability to develop a cohesive agenda that addresses real needs while empowering constituents with values and social goods that are durable, formative and community building. Effective leadership would not have only gotten the warring Sojourner Truth families to reconcile their differences, it would have leveraged those same people to push the City Council or school board’s agendas.

Black representation must be present on our boards and at our schools, but it’s critical that we also have effective leaders at those tables.