- - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

After having been assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point, one becomes acutely aware of the critical role leadership plays in solving challenging social problems. As an African-American, with that experience, I cannot not but consider the role black leadership plays in addressing African-American issues.

It is generally accepted that there has been substantial progress for black Americans over the last 60 years, yet by almost any measure, the status of African-Americans is bleak: Black-on-black violence all too often leads on the local news; over 70 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock; the education achievement gap continues to be a persistent feature of black education; many African-American children are educated in virtually segregated, underserved and underperforming schools, despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling; and African-American poverty and unemployment rates continue to be higher than their majority counterparts. Additionally, despite the preponderance of world-class black American athletes, hypertension, obesity, substance abuse, AIDS and diabetes plague the black community more than others.

Many high-profile, contemporary African-American leaders came out of the 1950-1980 civil rights movement. Much has changed since that time. Afro-Americans are no longer the nation’s largest minority group. The black-white paradigm that was 1950-2000 America no longer exists. American society is no longer racially bipolar, and the profile of other ethnic groups is rising. Newly arriving and growing ethnic communities do not feel a moral obligation or the onus for past grievances against blacks.

Since the 1950s, the nation has fought the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and wars in places many had never heard of before our soldiers fought and died there. The nation is war-weary and skeptical that trillions more similarly channeled dollars would yield better results. Additionally, the country seems to be moving toward addressing the long-neglected needs of women, Hispanic-Americans, and peoples long considered on the margins of society (homosexuals, transgenders, undocumented people and the incarcerated).

It is generally conceded the most egregious forms of institutional racism have been eliminated. This is testimony to the wisdom and effectiveness of the civil rights leaders and the tools they used to effect change. Voting rights has been assured for all but a marginal segment of the African-American electorate. There will continue to be a need to use the mainstay civil rights movement tools (demonstrations and court action) to call attention to blatant forms of race-related abuse, but it is doubtful that the tools and approaches black leaders used a generation ago can substantially affect issues plaguing African-Americans cited earlier.



Black civil rights-era leaders can rightfully be considered giants of their time. They struck the bell of liberty for African-Americans that has reverberated for Hispanic-Americans, women, farm workers and the spectrum of sexual-related genres. They forced America to confront the contrast between its ideals and its performance. They kept their eyes on the prize. It is not clear what prize contemporary black leaders have in mind.

One of the cornerstones of effective leadership is that leaders have a clear, coherent, well-articulated vision of what they want to accomplish. The view from afar is that there are many voices in the Afro-American community, but not the orchestration needed for the community to understand the process or the goal. I would not be so bold or so arrogant as to say what my community’s leaders should do, but I can say that inspired, enlightened black leadership should have some specific earmarks.

Black leadership needs to be future-oriented. A people need to know their history, but overemphasis on the past cannot but divert focus from the needs of the next generation. Effective black leadership’s vision should be developed from where the community needs to be 50 years from now. This would allow black leaders to focus on the needs of the next generation and beyond. Lastly, black leadership’s vision should be accompanied with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals that would allow African-Americans to hold their leaders, individually and collectively, accountable for their needs.

There are many places from which black leaders of vision can emerge: President Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus, the State houses, the nonprofits and the general African-American community. The only prerequisite should be that such leaders be fair-minded, consensus-builders of stature willing to participate in a forum to identify timelines, milestones and goals for our community to achieve by 2067.

If anything, the African-American experience has taught us that we cannot wait for others to rescue us. Our leaders must create a vision for the future that leverages our best qualities to promote the best outcomes for our community.

Surely, those African-American leaders who challenge the status quo will face an uphill battle, but it is painfully clear to any of us who care about this generation of African-Americans that continuing to do what we are currently doing and expecting a different result in the next generation is madness.

• Mack Brooks is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Vietnam veteran, and former admissions officer at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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