Nura Kly: Who Speaks for African-Americans: The Need for Democratic Self-determining Processes and Institutions

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On October 16, 1995, more than one million African American men convened on the Congressional Mall in Washington, and by their solemn, dignified and often inspiring manifestation revealed to the world the full indignity and irresponsibility of their U.S. Media-generated stereotypes. While the March's goals of unity and atonement appeared limited to many, the very magnitude of the event itself demonstrated what its sponsors chose not to clarify further. Before an attentive global media, that vast assembly pledged unity, and vowed to restore and improve the African American community in the spirit of self-determination. Often repeated in many forms throughout the long day, this declaration represented nothing less than a monumental public declaration of a sea change in the direction of the African American struggle.

What American, or indeed world figure, could assemble such a crowd on the Congressional steps? Certainly, many remarked, only Minister Louis Farrakhan could assemble such a crowd of African Americans. As the March's organizer, he had spent over two years touring the country urging African American support for the event as a part of the ongoing program of the Nation of Islam. The hugely successful Million Man March might have been viewed as one of those rare historic moments of passage, marking the shifting of the mantle of African American leadership away from the leaders of the Civil Rights era to a leadership which, to whatever extent it may be supported by the African American masses, has largely been reviled by the public media and ignored by government. At the very moment of his greatest triumph, Minister Farrakhan faced the prospect of efforts from many sides to separate the Message of the March (and more particularly, the adherence of the Marchers) from its Messenger. While Farrakhan might well have served as the March's catalyst, it was argued through the media and elsewhere, this did not mean he enjoyed its endorsement as leader of the African American people.

By way of demonstration, the U.S. press seized upon, if not created, the Presidential aspirations of Gulf War General Colin Powell, treating the world to the spectacle of a near-miraculous emergence of leadership potential heretofore unsuspected. For a few days of media frenzy immediately prior to and following the March, America debated exactly which party Powell might better lead to victory, and somewhat more belatedly, what he stood for, anyway - although the passage of time has made that abundantly clear. However much the media might imply that Powell was another kind of American Black), one who effectively interfaced with the Anglo American power establishment, one who, it was implied, embodied the kind of status now available to blacks in America, it could not claim even at the time that Colin Powell was the true representative of those masses who assembled on the Capitol steps, and the millions more in the heart of African American communities who applauded their assembly.

Why not? Because there was no way to prove it. If Louis Farrakhan found that successfully summoning one million men to the Capitol steps could not prove that he spoke for African Americans, neither could Colin Powell, as a media darling, prove that he did. (Indeed, should he have attempted that, it would have advanced the very notion which his candidacy was invented to counter: that there might be an independent leadership for African Americans, representing their views and needs, as distinct from those of other Americans.)

While many have complained that the March offered no policy directives, it brought to public attention several little-acknowledged realities: that African Americans see themselves as a people, and wish to continue to do so, even while pursuing equality within American; that the notion of an African American community, however dispersed, is a reality. No less importantly, the March highlighted the fact that no one knows (or at least can prove) who speaks for African Americans. While a sizable contingent of leadership from the Civil Rights era, notably Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Chavis, and others from the Black Caucus and nationalist groups as well, accepted second billing behind Farrakhan on the March platform, they nonetheless sought to appear as independent leaders in their own right who wanted to address the widespread malaise and desperation of the community. Important leadership elements within the African American community, from the Urban League, NAACP, and the African American church on the one hand, to Warid Dean Muhammad, on the other, either qualified or withheld their support from the Million Man March itself.

For every group or leader that might claim to speak for African Americans, questions of legitimacy arise as to whether the group and/or leader (a) exists primarily because of US government funding and support; (b) exists because of media publicity; (c) while claiming to speak for African Americans, in actuality represents the interest of other political, socio-economic or ethnic groups from whom it derives the greater part of its financing; (d) is too small or is culturally marginal or single issue or religiously orientated; (e) while speaking to African American issues, does so as only part of its mandate, and has been chosen by electorates in many instances made up of Anglo American as well as African American voters, to whom it also owes responsibility. The problem is not that African Americans have no leaders; they have many. And a diversity of voices or contenders for African American leadership is not, in and of itself, problematic; diversity itself is a democratic norm, in evidence in all well-functioning democracies worldwide.

The problem is that African Americans have no normative institutionalized democratic process for choosing their leaders, thereby endowing them with the legitimacy required to truly and effectively represent African American interests to the U.S. government and its various institutions, or anywhere else. They have no institutional mechanism, such as a parliament or an assembly, through which their leadership, once chosen, can exercise jurisdiction on an ongoing basis, develop policies, exert initiatives and expend resources according to the needs and interests of the African American community.

African American activists have long grappled with the problem of how to reflect African American wishes and needs through the existing U.S. electoral system. They have sought greater responsiveness within existing institutions such as the Democratic Party. They have sought to revise the voting system to ensure a greater proportion of electoral representatives whose socio-economic policies reflect their interest as one among a number of disadvantaged groups (the ill-fated proposals of Lani Guinier, Clinton's abandoned nominee for Assistant Attorney-General for Civil Rights.) And they have sought Congressional redistricting (presently under threat from a recent Supreme Court decision rolling back redistricting in Georgia) with a view to establishing "diversity," i.e., African American congressional districts.

In all these instances, the dilemma remained the same: how to represent African American wishes and needs without explicitly stating that intent, without acknowledging that African Americans, due to historical factors and unique systemic circumstances, were a distinct people within America, with distinct -- even if varied -- views, wishes and needs which were not, and perhaps even could not be, sufficiently addressed within America's existing politico-legal systemic structures and processes. And in all these instances, insofar as the expression of African American desires and needs were dependent upon Euro American facilitation -- whether through party policies, executive appointments or legislation -- they failed.

The on-going call for a popular African American leader to form a third or African American Party of some sort continues to reflect African Americans' inability to express or satisfy their needs through existing institutions and processes. The third party notion still avoids addressing a distinct African American electorate, instead viewing African Americans as a group among other groups whose basis is purely socio-economic. Such coalitions have been pursued, not only in electoral processes by groups such as Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, but also in other formats such as general fundraising or policy advocacy by the NAACP and the Congressional Black Congress. While both the African American and leftist elements which support such coalitions hope by this means to increase the size of their following, they have always pooled fewer resources than might have been anticipated. This may be because the ethnic divisions systemically enforced in America throughout most of its history (enslavement and apartheid) have made it difficult to rally oppressed sectors within the Euro American community behind the banner of African American leadership and/or initiatives. Also, the anticipated support from the African American people themselves has not materialized -- which in turn may be because the concern of African Americans is not solely socio-economic, but also revolves around questions of political and cultural self-determination. Lack of African American support for the African American leadership concerned with coalition formation may reflect the fact that this leadership has not addressed politico-cultural issues specific to the African American people, may not be able to do so within the context of their coalitions, and may not even be regarded by them as their true leaders.

So the core of the problem -- who speaks for African Americans? -- has remained unaddressed, not because American individualism has consistently militated against all forms of collective identity -- the American government had no problem with systemically relating to the collective existence of African Americans during the enslavement and Jim Crow periods -- but because the Civil Rights era sought to obscure the collective reality of African Americans that has been so present throughout American history. The question has not been addressed because the reality which gives rise to it -- that African Americans are a unique people of African descent, endemic to America -- has not been acknowledged, perhaps because the Anglo American elites have no desire to extend to African Americans the right to self determination (internal cultural and autonomy rights) that the U.S. government recognizes and advocates in relation to national minorities in eastern Europe and elsewhere, preferring rather to prolong African American subordination achieved earlier through enslavement and segregation by contemporary systemic policies of assimilation, disguised as the formal equality of all before the law (civil rights).

What might be required to enable the African American people to democratically express their needs and pursue their interests, to enjoy collective self-determination within a united America -- as is the internationally recognized collective right of national minorities or peoples? What might be an appropriate self-determining mechanism for the expression of African American needs, feasible within the current context -- the contraction of systemic resources, the rollback of affirmative action, and exacerbated ethnic division leading to Anglo American unwillingness to even deal with African American questions?

African Americans need democratic self-determining processes (elections) to establish what it is they want and who speaks for them, and a permanent mechanism (parliament or assembly) to endow that leadership with the full authority of the will of the African American people. Both the process and the mechanism can be brought about by African Americans themselves, outside of any institutions and processes currently established by Anglo Americans. It need not depend on Anglo American good will; it could be done without it. Yet once established by African Americans as the legitimate spokesbody for African Americans, the African American Consultative Assembly (or whatever it might be named) would be well situated to lobby the U.S. government for legal recognition and structures of governance (i.e. law-making and administrative capacity) in relation to the African American community in sectors such as education, health and so on. It would also be positioned to seek some manner of public funding (transfer payment, the right to tax, etc.) for its regular and ongoing enablement -- similar to autonomous arrangements for national minorities elsewhere in the world which receive public monies to establish, fund and run the institutional structures their people require.

A Consultative Assembly may be the mechanism through which African Americans might best pursue their goal of reparations - as well as negotiate to determine what the reparations should be, and how same should be disposed of. Indeed, legally recognized and publicly funded structures of governance might be the reparations!

While an African American Consultative Assembly might have been attempted by several leadership elements coalescing and proclaiming themselves to be such (witness the various so-called African American Summits), only the holding of elections within the African American electorate at large can invest the Assembly with the necessary aura of democratic legitimacy. Should African Americans proceed towards African American elections and a Consultative Assembly, they could expect expert help from the UN and other international organizations. If African American oversight of the process were to be placed in the hands of a strictly technical and functional body which had no interest in taking a leadership role within the Assembly itself, but rather in facilitating its establishment, then the process itself would not be stigmatized by seeming to be captured by a contending group at its very inception. The process should be made available to all leadership elements in the community, permitting all to freely and democratically contend, whether as parties or as individuals -- or in whatever manner might be established in advance for the free, fair and democratic holding of African American elections, in keeping with UN advice and assistance, through conferences or other processes within the African American community at large.

Why do legally-recognized structures, which confer the power to enact and enforce laws, matter for people? We need only refer to the anti-globalization struggle, which is engaged in resisting the relinquishment of state powers to international bodies which proscribe the legal ability of the nation state to empower and institutionally pursue the well-being of the state's people - whether through social programs, economic development, or whatever. Legal apparatus, governing structures, law-making capacity: this is needed by peoples - any people - to achieve their objectives, express their will, and get things done.

Why not African Americans?