The winds of turmoil and change are blowing. In a sense, we are living in a revolutionary cultural moment. There is a global pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. Millions of Americans are unemployed and uncertain how they are going to make ends meet. Businesses are in serious trouble and some have already closed. Covid-19 was a perfect storm. It hit America during a time of great social upheaval and fragmentation. The partisan divide is dysfunctional and impairs our ability to function as a healthy democracy. Hate and mistrust are intensifying and spilling into the streets. Our roads, bridges, tunnels, and rail system are antiquated and crumbling. Despite our cultural worship of wealth and affluence, millions of Americans are living in poverty. In fact, poverty in America is such a problem that the United Nations (U.N.) commissioned a special study and issued a stinging report stating millions of Americans are living in Third World conditions. There is the presidential election that could set off another chain of violence and mayhem for what could be a “winter of our discontent” as Shakespeare said in Richard III. As the American crisis deepens, religious and faith-based institutions are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unable to stem the crisis of meaning and rampant nihilism playing itself out on social media, popular media, and in our streets. More Americans are leaving churches and abandoning traditional beliefs unable to make sense of what has become of this country. While America declines, other nations are growing in strength economically, politically, and culturally; what Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the rest” in his book The Post-American World. In a sense, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated deeper fault lines, setting off social earthquakes and cultural tsunamis that have engulfed the nation. We are living in a cultural windstorm!
Amid such upheaval, black political and community leadership are more important than ever. That is why I want this month’s Black Pulpit and Public Square article in Black Politics Today magazine to bring needed attention to the issue of black leadership. Kelly Mikel Williams always asks us the question: “what’s at stake for black America?” The answer today is: “Everything is at stake for us in this cultural moment.” Covid-19 is killing a disproportionate number of African Americans, the data on depression, hypertension, and obesity rates is alarming, home ownership rates resemble rates during the Great Depression, we own a mere 2.6% of wealth though we represent 13% of the population, and we are still miseducated, overly policed, and incarcerated. Most of us live paycheck to paycheck in a country that values black culture – artistic and athletic skill – while hating us at the same time. Black communities and people are left in survival mode while global change and innovation moves at a frantic pace leaving us even further behind. In this storm, black political and community leaders strive to give their best energies and intelligence to helping us navigate these incredible challenges.
My purpose for this month’s article is twofold. I want to share a resource that can deepen their understanding of crisis moment we are in. Please get a copy of the book The American Crisis: What Went Wrong How We Recover by the writers of The Atlantic. I also want readers to understand unique challenges for black America because leading in a cultural windstorm requires an awareness of what’s swirling, their impact on you as a leader and our communities. Winds are blowing and too many of us are caught up into reactionary impulses and attitudes instead of providing visionary and strategic leadership.
I want to begin by applauding black leaders in congress, our historic black colleges and universities, the NAACP and the National Urban League, The Rainbow Push Coalition, National Action Network, National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), presiding bishops, convention presidents, and congregational pastors, educators and healthcare professionals, state and local government, business men and women, public intellectuals, socially-conscious entertainers, athletes, and media members, emergent groups like the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), Black Lives Matter, Black Politics Today, and our former president Barack Obama for the dauting task of fighting to make the lives of black folk a little better each day. We do not express our appreciation to them enough for the ways they try to serve and give leadership to organizations, institutions, and communities.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned the country about the forces of reaction during times of war. I believe his thoughts here apply to times of intense national conflict like we are witnessing today. He said, “It is really much more difficult to arouse the conscience during a time of war. There is something about a war like this that makes people insensitive. It dulls the conscience. It strengthens the forces of reaction and it brings into being bitterness and hatred and violence” (NBC News Interview). As always, Dr. King was correct in his analysis. During times of conflict, emotions run hot and deep. We identify enemies and mobilize to destroy them. More dangerously, during these times, we require family and friends to choose sides. “Are you for us or against us?” Antagonism, contention, and strife fills the air we breathe and foundation for social engagement. This gives meaning to what he meant by the statement “war…makes people insensitive.” In stormy period of controversy, people will do all sorts of things against others because they are caught up by the forces of reaction. Today, our political and community leaders have a profound responsibility to be aware of these forces because they will invariably impair our ability to address the monumental challenges and promises before us. I want to share three forces for our consideration.
1. The Winds of Cultural Deconstructionists
A part of the complexity of the current historical moment is our inability to understand the difference between telling the truth about our past to build a better future for everyone from our obsession to deconstruct everything. Deconstruction is a technical term in philosophical and religious studies that describes the process of questioning traditional assumptions about truth and identity and is characterized by a tendency to break down to show biases and inconsistencies. Deconstructionism can be healthy and help societies correct beliefs that are deeply problematic. However, deconstructionism can go awry and lead to a destructive questioning and tearing down of everything associated with others.
As a society, a dangerous form of deconstructive logic has taken hold that is focused on what I call obsessive problem analysis in others. Many people, including leaders focus only on problems and the problem is almost always in others. Jesus described this flawed logic in Matthew 7. They see sawdust in your eye but not the plank in their own eye. Leaders and people in general can explain what is wrong with institutions, organizations, and ideas. They are skilled and passionate about the need to tear everything a part and discard them but, when it is time to offer solutions and take up constructive aspects of advocacy and public policy work, they don’t have much to say. Social media has given deconstructionists a platform to rant and rave about problems, to deconstruct all things sports, business, politics, religion, relationships, education, and mental health. Deconstructing everything has become a default cognitive setting in us that has poisoned our political and community leaders. Like so many others, they can only tell you what needs to be torn down and not what and how to build. The truth is, there is more to effective leadership than tearing everything down or only explaining the nature of the problem. We have too many deconstructionists in leadership who only know what is wrong with everything and everyone else but cannot galvanize people around the good and organize them to build something. This must change.
2. The Winds of an Unfocused Black Political Agenda
It is hard to channel rage into change because some of the rage is rooted in a lack of awareness of what we want and where to begin to do the kind of advocacy and policy work that brings change. Some black leaders do not have a focused and practical black agenda. Some of this is related to the crowd that is telling you everything that is wrong. Deconstructionism as an end to itself traps you in a vicious cycle of frustration and anger because it is focused on the problem. This leaves us locked into a form of social paralysis in the face of the sheer magnitude of issues confronting black communities and explains the small but real faction of our communities that are lashing out and turning to violence, looting. Some of this reflects feeling helpless and hopeless about change. Our problems are so big that it is hard to think incrementally and with specificity about a few areas as if it a disservice to the magnitude of the problem.
Righteous anger is healthy but if can become toxic and destructive if it is not channeled in constructive ways. Channeling righteous rage requires focus, or as I like to say, a focused vision that has the breadth to say here is what we need, and the specificity to recognize the steps or process to get us there.
This kind of focused vision, that understands the increments or steps in a larger process, is rooted in the creation story in Genesis 1. Notice how God creates by bringing order to the chaos described in verse two (now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep). God focuses on specific things each day and recognized the good accomplished for the day, even though more work needed to be done. Imagine using these insights to develop a leadership philosophy for the African American community. God brings order and beauty out of chaos in six days. This means God had a clear vision of what needed to be done on each day. God was not confused about or pressed to do more than was possible for the day. More importantly, God paused to see all that was done and celebrated it in its unfinished stage. This is why I believe the black community needs a focused black political agenda that our various organizations and leaders can focus on for a specific period. For me, the black agenda should focus on the criminal justice system, education, and economic reform. This is one example of an agenda where leaders identify outcomes that we collectively focus to meet in the next twenty-five to forty years. We will also have to create mechanisms and occasions to celebrate progress made despite all that is left to do. We cannot wallow only in what has not been done. As a community, we must pause and celebrate the good and use it as inspiration and motivation to continue the work.
3. The Winds In-Fighting and Cultural Strife
There is a lot of in-fighting and strife in black communities. It happens during periods of intense confrontation. For example, during times of war, there is something called friendly fire when a soldier or instrument of war accidentally or recklessly kills a member of its own unit. It is tragic going to fight an enemy but being killed by a friendly. This reminds us that just because we are on the same team or a member of the same ethnicity does not mean we are united or that we cannot be hurt by people we are trying to help. Today there is entirely too much toxic in-fighting in black America.
Group unity and solidarity among fellow marginalized people are hard to maintain as there are forces from without and within, tearing at the weak fabric of our communities. But we need some modicum of unity and solidarity as a community. Black people are not monolithic and disagreement and ideological diversity are healthy and good. However, there is a narrowness, a form of sectarianism that insists on allegiances to singular leaders, ideas, or approaches to advocacy and public policy that is vilifying people fighting for the same thing. This mindset played itself out all summer and fall on social media as disagreements over how to protest, where to protest, and why to protest a certain way or disagreement among leaders results in someone being labeled a sellout or an Uncle Tom or not black. Such a mindset keeps groups small and closed off from others and destroys effective communication and partnerships, even those trying to fight the same thing. Such in-fighting is inevitable in a racist context because racism reinforces beliefs that can be internalized and employed by the very people who were victimized by racism themselves – dehumanize, label, separate, oppress, etc. But, in the end, it is counterproductive and when combined with radical deconstructionism and an unfocused agenda, hinders our ability to take substantive steps to address inequities. Leaders have to stop participating in this kind of nihilistic work. We have to stop making enemies of each other. Instead, let us take up the hard work of salvaging broken relationships and partnerships that could help our people.
Black political and community leaders face the challenge of dealing with external winds affecting the country while being mindful of destructive “more internal” winds that can leave our communities and institutions decimated if they run their course. I hope this article will help you to think critically and creatively about the challenges before us. In the coming months, we need our political and community leaders to stand in face of the wind and navigate the dangers so our communities can not only survive but thrive in this era of upheaval and change.
Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Research Professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky.