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So Much for the Promised Land

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Posted on Aug 3, 2009
AP / LM Otero

By Chris Hedges

LeAlan Jones, the 30-year-old Green Party candidate for Barack Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois, is as angry at injustice as he is at the African-American intellectual and political class that accommodates it. He does not buy Obama’s “post-racial” ideology or have much patience with African-American leaders who, hungry for prestige, power and money, have, in his eyes, forgotten the people they are supposed to represent. They have confused a personal ability to be heard and earn a comfortable living with justice.

“The selflessness of leaders like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Harold Washington and Medgar Evers has produced selfishness within the elite African-American leadership,” Jones told me by phone from Chicago.

“This is the only thing I can do to have peace of mind,” he said when I asked him why he was running for office. “I am looking at a community that is suffering because of a lack of genuine concern from their leaders. This isn’t about a contract. This isn’t about a grant. This isn’t about who gets to stand behind the political elite at a press conference. This is about who is going to stand behind the people. What these leaders talk about and what needs to happen in the community is disjointed.”

Jones began his career as a boy making radio documentaries about life in Chicago’s public housing projects on the South Side, including the acclaimed “Ghetto Life 101.” He knows the world of which he speaks. He lives in the troubled Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, where he works as a freelance journalist and a high school football coach. He is the legal guardian of a 16-year-old nephew. And he often echoes the denunciations of black leaders by the historian Houston A. Baker Jr., who wrote “Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era.”

Baker excoriates leading public intellectuals including Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Shelby Steele, Yale law professor Stephen Carter and Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter, saying they pander to the powerful. He argues they have lost touch with the reality of most African-Americans. Professor Gates’ statement after his July 16 arrest that “what it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable are all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policemen” was a stunning example of how distant from black reality many successful African-American figures like Gates have become. These elite African-American figures, Baker argues, long ago placed personal gain and career advancement over the interests of the black majority. They espouse positions that are palatable to a white audience, positions which ignore the radicalism and structural critiques of inequality by W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And in a time when, as the poet Yusef Komunyakaa has said, “the cell block has replaced the auction block,” they do not express the rage, frustration and despair of the black underclass.

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The conditions for black men and women in America are sliding backward, with huge numbers of impoverished and unemployed removed from society and locked up. Baker acidly calls this “the disappearing” of blacks. The unemployment rate in most inner cities is in the double digits, and segregation, especially in city schools and wealthy states like New Jersey, is the norm. African-American communities are more likely to be red-lined by banks and preyed upon by unscrupulous mortgage lenders, which is why such a high percentage of foreclosures are in blighted, urban neighborhoods. The Village Voice’s recent exposé that detailed brutal and sometimes fatal beatings of black and Hispanic prisoners by guards at New York’s Rikers Island was a window into a daily reality usually not seen or acknowledged by the white mainstream.

“I have three people within my immediate family that are men that have come home within the last 24 to 36 months from being incarcerated,” Jones said. “They are tired of going to jail. They don’t want to go to jail anymore. But there are no jobs. What service can they provide? My belief is those individuals coming home, these ex-felons, have more credibility to stop the violence in the inner city than the police do. It is their sons and nephews and their immediate families that are being the provocateurs of that violence. But if we are asking them to stop crime, what incentive are we providing them to do that?”

“How much money did the American economy lose because of the derivatives and the credit default swaps?” he asked. “There have been only two men prosecuted for that level of crime, Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford. How much is the drug industry worth in the United States? It is not worth $45 trillion. How many African-American and Hispanic men are incarcerated for being the same kind of capitalist? If we swap dope for derivatives there wouldn’t be a Wall Street because they would be behind bars. If we prosecute derivatives the same way you prosecute dope, which is not different in how it undermines a family, Wall Street wouldn’t exist.”

  “A bunch of guys on Wall Street have done more to devastate the white community than any black man ever could,” he added. “I would have bailed out the pension funds, retirement funds, 401(k)s and funds attached to everyday people. If Wall Street and the banks couldn’t survive, they couldn’t survive, but the people’s money would not have been impacted. If you would have killed personal wealth you would have killed personal wealth. They took the pension funds of state, city and local governments and misappropriated that capital. How can you reward them on the front end when they messed up the people’s money on the front end?”


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thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, August 3, 2009 at 4:35 am Link to this comment

“In the age of Obama”? Even from the sometimes hysterical Rev. Hedges, that seems a bit of a cheap shot. And what exactly are black people suppose to strive for in the United States? Is it not the same consumerist death march that their cracker skin brothers want? That damn “piece of the pie” that TV’s The Jeffersons sang about, that made Norman Lear even richer? As the late Junior Wells said: “Everybody’s gettin’ some, why not me?”
There use to be the expression: the brothers who got over. Those who were clever enough (or servile enough, depending on how you look at it) to obtain their share of the goodies. But the real question is: why does anyone who has (by any means necessary) gotten over, as it were, have to remember what he or she escaped from? I do not hear anyone bemoaning rich white people for forgetting all about their people who are poor. President Obama owes nothing to people trapped in the poverty of the ghetto, he was raised in Hawaii by a mother who worked in a bank.

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