Black Leadership: A New Generation of Pragmatists

The problems of poverty, race and crime that plague so many American cities have once again been thrust into the national discussion by the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina.

It has also raised the issue of political leadership and effective government, and perhaps also provides a launching point for a discussion on the role and direction of black political leadership in this country.

Specifically, the growing rift between the black political establishment and the new, younger generation of political leaders trying to bring fresh ideas to our problems.

I am a 34-year-old African-American and a third-generation resident of Newark, N.J., and have been a candidate for city government in my city. Newark, like a lot of majority African-American communities in the United States, has been resistant, if not downright hostile, to a new generation of black political leadership — a generation on whose behalf the older generation has professed for years to be fighting.

This generational divide has occurred in a number of places all around the country, but the stated reasons have been the same. Consider the obstacles and opposition individual members of this new generation of black political leaders have faced within the African-American community:

— While he is embraced today by most African-American political leaders as future presidential timbre, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in his losing race for Congress in 2000 against old guard Rep. Bobby Rush, was depicted as not having paid his dues, not being homegrown, being "over-educated," not being "black enough" and being too comfortable with adopting policy and political stances out of sync with the traditional Black consensus.

This criticism came after Obama led efforts to register over 100,000 African-American voters in Chicago in the early 1990s

Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee next year, has been labeled with similar epithets. One political web site has called Ford a "Trojan Horse" for white, conservative, Republican corporate interests to take over traditionally liberal black Democratic areas.

Ford must weather these attacks despite a voting record that, according to Project Vote Smart, is almost identical to that of Jesse Jackson, Jr.'s (a favorite of the "Trojan Horse" Web site) and receives similar ratings to Jackson by traditionally liberal advocacy groups. Ford and Jackson were given identical voting ratings by the CWA and SEIU labor unions; Ford actually gets a higher rating by the Children's Defense Fund.

So, why do our political fathers and mothers in the "struggle" deliberately mischaracterize us and attack us as not being legitimate fruit of the "movement?"

Part of the reason is typical of all generational divides, in which parents and children disagree on everything from music to political opinions. I grew up in Newark, am a member of the first generation of "hip-hop," but also attended a majority white prep school and university. Because of these experiences and others different from what our parents knew, I know that we, as the first generation of African-American leaders to come of political age after the 1960s civil rights revolution, have a much different take on our condition as a race, on our status in America and how we should collectively solve our problems.

We are pragmatists and are only interested in politics and policies that work. It is of no concern to us that many of the positions we adopt are considered to be too conservative — or even too left-wing in some instances — by the current civil rights leadership.

For this, we are attacked and derided by the older generation for adopting new ideas and outlooks not previously advocated or expressed by black political leaders. But these attacks are really symptomatic of generational arguments throughout black political history in America.

The generation that followed Booker T. Washington’s philosophy fought against the younger generation that followed W.E.B. DuBois’ ideas. In the late 1950s, college students from North Carolina and the younger black ministers who supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his philosophy of direct action, met opposition from the older generation who preferred a less “in-your-face” tactic.

And in the late 1960’s, the younger generation embraced the philosophy of the Black Panther Party as opposed to that of Dr. King’s — which had been the upstart strategy just 10 years earlier.

Now, after more than three decades in power in our communities, that same generation of African-Americans questions why the next generation — my generation — would call for fundamental and more pragmatic changes. Somewhere in these years, the movement started to eat its young, or branded the young as enemies for trying to adapt to new challenges in a changing 21st century world.

So, my younger generation proposes new ideas: Like Harold Ford Jr.'s "Call to Service" plan and his stakeholder account idea, in which the federal government, in return for community service, establishes accounts for low-income children that will be invested until they reach 18 and can take full control of the account.

We support Jackson Jr.'s strategy of calling for constitutional amendments that would guarantee health care, full employment and education as fundamental rights.

On the local level, we have new ideas on supporting small businesses to create jobs, reforming old and corrupt local political machines and making government work better and in partnership with community institutions. Newark, for example, was the host of the first national Hip-Hop Convention in 2004.

My generation of political leadership wants results, not the old time religion of mass demonstrations and annual confabs where problems are lamented and answers signifying nothing are prescribed.

Those of us in the political sphere are looking to our successful counterparts in the business world — to recording industry entrepreneurs like Damon Dash and Russell Simmons, who, when the establishment major record labels ignored them, started their own. We are doing the same thing in the world of politics: making our own way, refusing to apologize for doing so. We obviously have not been mentored or encouraged by our elders who have held the power for the past 20 to 30 years.

It is time for the "movement" generation to retire, as their ideas have been proven outdated, unresponsive and simply not good enough. Their virulent opposition to the next generation's set of new ideas has taken away their moral standing.

As a good friend and local labor leader in Newark once correctly surmised, the civil rights leadership fought against white racism, segregation and political disenfranchisement. Our generation never thought that we would have to fight them to gain a seat at the table. Some of us are up for that battle if need be.

Ron Rice Jr. is a former and current candidate for Newark City Council and the son of New Jersey state senator Ronald Rice. For more on Ron Rice Jr., visit his website at

Respond to the Writer