IT'S HARD TO TELL these days which is greatest -- the vaunted crisis in black leadership that everyone is talking about, or the crisis of black followership that few seem to have noticed.
The recognized black leaders have distinguished themselves by what they have not said and done in the face of a rising tide of conservatism. They have offered little beyond emotional rhetoric and talk of hysteria. They have failed to point out that blacks will be loyal to this country no matter who is president and expect that president to uphold the law of the land. And they have proposed few anwers to all the bad news from Atlanta, Miami, Buffalo and even Utah.
That's part of what's wrong with the leadership. Now let's look at the other end.
The followership -- rank and file, bourgeois, middle income, dispossessed, masses, upper classes, you name it -- is in even worse shape. The crisis here is the failure to face up to the problems and work at the solutions. Until that is done on a broad scale, all the leadership in America can't put blacks back together again.
Recent history has shown the danger of placing too much confidence in leadership alone. When that leader suddenly is taken away, the followers are without direction. Those who wanted to splinter and confuse the civil rights movement had only to kill Martin Luther King. The same was true, though to a lesser extent, with the assassination of Malcolm X and the death of Whitney Young. e
The painful lesson of that period of turmoil should be clear. Everyone has to be some kind of leader. This means investing more resources in programs, institutions and grass-roots understanding. This means investing in the education of children, sacrificing to create a home environment that stresses the values of education and hard work.
This means parents must not permit their children to reign, but rather must assume the responsibility of rearing their young. Right now, too many black children are out of control in our schools, spurning the discipline of teachers.
Blacks simply can't look for help to anybody but themselvews. The politics of sheer survival dictate getting our act together. If blacks have gone awry, the solution is simple -- back to basics.
All this is not to say that a role no longer exists for the leadership. To the contrary, several important roles exist, but they will require a revamping of old, out-of-date rhetoric and attitudes.
The charge to the leadership is to shed outmoded ideas, like offering only rhetoric and emotionalism when the times demand specifics about issues such as the economy, redlining and health care. They must abandon the practice of merely reacting to narrow issues and relate positively and authoritatively to the wide range of issues that concern blacks -- from foreign policy and the military to the prime interest rate.
The ministerial/ceremonial role of the leadership should not be dismissed. That's the job of interacting with the power structure to articulate demands and aspiration. That's the role of going to the White House, reacting to issues. That's the role of interpreting to the average person in Utah the depth and breadth of black aspirations. That, the leadership can and should do.
The leadership must be the collective voice of accountability that the media turns to, the articulate spokespersons who are willing to be examined publicily. They must form the think tanks to plot direction.
But never again must the rank and file abandon the responsibility for themselves to be leaders, too. For if the traditional black leadership elite has lost the constituency it claims to represent -- the masses -- and has to face up to this in the upcoming decade, so too must the followership face up to its crisis. Otherwise, the fate of both groups may be a future that is as uncomfortable as has been some of the recent past.