In "Beyond the Civil Rights Industry," Eva Thorne and Eugene Rivers
argue that black Americans have been sold out by most national black
leaders. Forsaking a practical or even progressive politics that might
advance the lives of the black poor, the authors contend that black
leaders—those they deem the "Civil Rights Industry"—have
opted instead for a symbolic game of politics defined by compromise,
personal reward, and the neglect of those most vulnerable in black communities.
Of course this criticism of traditional black leadership is not new.
Many academics and community members routinely complain about the absence
or ineffectiveness of national black leaders in their battle against
such pressing issues as AIDS, incarceration, and punitive welfare policies.
To be sure, some elected officials, like Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson
Jr., have taken principled stands in opposition to the regressive policy
agendas of the last three presidents. On average, however, most national
black leaders have failed to leverage their access, power, and resources
into a progressive policy agenda that would fundamentally better the
lives of those most marginal in communities of color, in particular
In light of such failures, I join with Thorne and Rivers in calling
for a new black political agenda and leadership. That, however, is where
my agreement with the authors ends. For after presenting an insightful
analysis of traditional black elites, Thorne and Rivers make a ninety-degree
turn to the right and offer up the black church as the new source of
leadership for black communities and a new politics of expediency for
the black poor. The authors specifically argue that the moral authority
of the church—its roots within black communities and its political
clout and access to power—make it the ideal candidate to lead
struggles looking for practical solutions for issues ranging from the
increasing incarceration of black youth to the lack of family-wage jobs
to the impact of AIDS in Africa.
I must admit to being baffled by the suggestion that the black church
should lead the fight for the black poor. Anyone familiar with faith-based
institutions in black communities—those of us raised in the black
church—know that it is the rare congregation that is out front
on progressive issues and policy concerns, in particular those that
empower rather than manage the black poor. I say this not to discount
the long history of the black church as a service provider of last resort.
Whether it is through social ministries, public programs, or the work
of church-affiliated women's groups, black faith-based institutions
have provided needed resources and goods to the poor in many communities.
But, while the church has been willing to service those in need, it
has repeatedly shied away from engaging in a politics that would empower
these same individuals, neighborhoods, and groups.
While the church or faith-based institutions in black communities have
never acted as a monolithic whole, more often than we wish to admit
those directly in charge of the church have promoted an exclusionary
and moralistic political and social agenda that positions the church
outside of truly radical politics, which is intent on transforming the
condition of the black poor here and abroad. For example, most churches
refuse to protect and extend the reproductive choices of black women,
especially poor black women, who confront the greatest restrictions.
Similarly, many black churches have been slow and reluctant to provide
services to those with HIV and AIDS in black communities, with little
attempt to empower those segments of black communities most at risk—black
men who sleep with men, black gay men, and injection drug users. Furthermore,
while many black congregations have been negatively affected by President
Clinton's welfare bill and the criminialization and incarceration of
black youth, few have actively involved themselves in political campaigns
to challenge such policies.
Again, I am not interested in condemning all black clergy, as Thorne
and Rivers do of all civil rights leaders. As we can identify those
select black officials who engage in a different, more progressive politics,
so to can we name those churches attempting to make a difference in
their communities. Still, individual congregations and ministers taking
a progressive stand and demanding not only resources but also justice
are the exception to the rule. We should be clear by now that middle-class
leaders, whether they be the old-guard of the civil rights movement
or the old-guard of the black church, have a personal interest in protecting
their own mobility and access by managing and often disempowering the
most vulnerable and seemingly threatening—at least to the status
quo—members of black communities. Thus, promoting a new middle-class
leadership out of the black church, surely to be dominated by men, instead
of more organic leadership from those who most often populate the bottom—poor
women—seems fundamentally wrong and a continuation of the same
old hierarchical style of disconnected leadership that Thorne and Rivers
condemn in their article.
I am sure by now Thorne and Rivers have labeled me another one of those
impractical academics engaging in a rhetorical exercise of political
correctness with no real sense of how the black poor live, let alone
survive. Who am I to suggest that clergy who everyday administer church
ministries that feed hungry children and tutor kids lost in a failing
educational system are not positioned to define a new black political
agenda that focuses on the poor? Without responding by reference to
my family history, let me just say that my questioning of the political
wherewithal of black faith-based leaders to represent the varied and
often stigmatized interests of the black poor has everything to do with
the religious ideology that guides their work and shapes their political
and moral vision.
For example, I find it ironic, if not hypocritical, that Thorne and
Rivers would suggest that the black church is ready to provide leadership
around the issue of AIDS in Africa. This, of course, is the same black
church that has been largely absent from sustained political struggle
to confront AIDS in black communities in this country. This is also
the same black church that is structured around a narrow conservative
doctrine of moral exclusion, degrading same-sex love and vilifying substance
abuse. How can we expect this institution to be an effective dispenser
of services for all those with AIDS, let alone a leader of political
struggles around AIDS in black communities here and abroad?
Similarly, how is an institution steeped in patriarchy and sexism going
to be able to generate and implement a political agenda that speaks
to the needs of poor black women, those who constitute the greatest
percentage of the black poor? I cannot think of any institution rooted
in black communities that has been more anti-feminist or has exploited
the work of women while barring or limiting their access to the pulpit
and other centers of authority within the church. Beyond the specific
politics of the church, there is the question of how this new strata
of black leaders will respond to attacks on black women's rights around
the world. I have yet to hear, for example, a significant outcry from
black ministers—especially those, led by Rivers, who met with
President Bush—when as one of his first acts in office Bush barred
federal aid to any international group that provided family-planning
counseling and advocacy, even when that group used their own money for
those purposes. This policy will increase the death and suffering of
black poor women around the world. Reversing it must be made a priority
by any black leadership wishing to transform the condition of the black
poor around the world.
Considering all this, the question for me is not whether black ministers
can form an alternative source of leadership in black communities that
can engage in pragmatic politics. They have in the past and they will
again. Need we forget that many of the current leaders, who Thorne and
Rivers would condemn, originally came out of the black church. The question,
instead, is whether the pragmatic politics of this group is anything
new or different from that witnessed by the "Civil Rights Industry"
or Booker T. Washington. There is a long history of black leaders genuflecting
at the feet of white officials for money to solve "our" problems. I
fear that, in the end, if we follow Thorne and Rivers's lead, we will
find ourselves with a 21st-century version of this politics of accommodation.
Never one to downplay the importance of providing for people's basic
needs, I just ask Thorne and Rivers to tell the truth. This is not a
new or liberating or particularly moral political strategy they are
advocating. It is, instead, a practical and limiting and conservative
politics, not only in its view of the state, but more disappointingly
in its view of what poor black people deserve and what organized and
mobilized communities can do. •
Cathy J. Cohen is professor of political science and African
American studies at Yale and author of The
Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics.
Return to the forum on faith
in politics, with Eva Thorne, Eugene Rivers, and responses.