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Out with the Old, in with the New
Jonetta Rose Barras
September 3, 1998

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The pivotal episode came in 1992 with the release of a national survey conducted by the Detroit News. The study found that the majority of African Americans felt that traditional black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson were out of touch with the times. While these leaders and groups boasted that racism was the primary concern, African Americans in urban communities pointed to crime, unemployment, economic deprivation, and poor educational opportunities as the prosper-preventing culprits.

But, even before the survey, shifts in the expectations of urban blacks became evident. They had grown more intolerant of leaders who offered symbolism, fancy talk, empty promises. Their affections and attentions had turned to those who provided solid strategies for pulling thousands of blacks from the clutches of poverty. They had begun searching for a new style of leadership. In 1993, they tapped Dennis Archer to become mayor of Detroit. Michael White had become mayor of Cleveland. Bill Campbell became mayor of Atlanta. Wayne Curry became executive of Prince Georges County in
Maryland — one of the wealthiest, predominantly African-American suburbs in the United States.

Within recent years Jackson, Mississippi and Dallas, Texas also have opted for this new style of black leader who has moved beyond rallies and protest marches. This new group has ushered in an era of competent, professional stewardship of cities long wracked by poverty and crime. They have combined corporate savvy and management acumen with street smarts and political sophistication. They have embraced African-American culture but are not imprisoned by it. They understand the nuances of racism, but do not wear it as their albatross.

They are not simply blacks in fancy suits with Harvard vocabularies. As a group, they walk toward a universal humanity, and they fully embrace democratic principles and the existing political systems. They know that if African-Americans are to do justice to their past, the future must be met with excellence and content — not merely color.

In 1994, District residents, displaying a certain sympathy and loyalty to Marion Barry, chose not to join the national trend sweeping through urban centers. But four years later, citizens in the nation’s capital, particularly African Americans, have decided they can no longer confuse eloquence with experience and charisma with competence. They are poised to select a man as their next mayor who could serve as the poster child of the new black leadership.

While there are three whites vying for the Office of Mayor, it is unlikely any will ultimately take the seat. One is a Republican woman who has high appeal among black voters and who, in the past, when matched against Barry, received 42 percent of the vote; two are Democrats — one is a member of the city council and the other a restaurateur. But the action is focused on the remaining three Democratic hopefuls — two council members and the former Chief Financial Officer of the District, whose position was created when Congress established a control board to oversee the city’s fiscal and management recovery. Of the three blacks running for the seat, Council member Kevin Chavous and finance officer Anthony Williams are in a dead heat.

The fight between Chavous and Williams is symbolic of the larger battle taking place throughout urban centers in America, but more specifically in black communities. Chavous represents a sort of transitional leader, who has not quite divested himself of the symbols, jargon, and racial imaging of the Civil Rights Movement. Although bright and articulate, he and many of his black handlers still speak the coded language of race. His platform demonstrates a sort of philosophical schizophrenia: He talks of independence — a new version of the bootstrap concept — but hints throughout his platform of a reliance on government. And while he advocates revival of deteriorating commercial corridors, the vehicles he offer to stimulate economic growth in communities punctuated with boarded buildings and a bustling drug trade are old fashioned and lack sufficient fuel. They are destined not to go anywhere.

Sporting a bow tie, speaking in iridescent analogies, witty but with a political precision that causes even the pundits to marvel, Williams is the epitome of the class in which Archer, White, and Campbell sit. He is the new black leader.

The fight in the District in 1998 is like the fight in Detroit in 1993. It is a battle both for the soul of the city and for the future of the race. A fight that will determine if the nation's capital — a Southern town with a Northern patina — will arrive at the 21st Century ready for the revolution, as we used to say in the 1960s; if it will assume its position along other urban centers that are beginning to witness remarkable progress; or if the revolution will pass it by.

If Williams is elected (a recent Washington Post poll shows him with 38 percent of the vote), new life will be breathed into a city that for too long had been shaped by crippling racial issues and stagnated by antiquated social and economic policies while bleeding middle class residents. The District still will face problems associated with its tenuous relationship with Congress, a flat economy that cannot be boosted by the usual instruments of a reciprocal income tax or a heightened commercial expansion, and the normal array of urban social ills.

But, like Detroit, the District will have an opportunity to break cleanly from its past. It will have at its helm a new black leader who understands the possibility of solving the age old problems are endless, including rebuilding the multi-racial, multi-class coalition that first advocated and helped win political empowerment for African Americans. The potential for success, including achieving economic parity and wealth, will be unlimited.

Jonetta Rose Barras is the author of The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders, released earlier this year by Bancroft Press.

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