Opinion The problem with the Black Democratic leadership class
“Earlier this month, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries excited Democrats across the countrywith a great first speech in his new role as House minority leader. Jeffries then returned home to New York — and immediately eroded some of that good will.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has nominated Hector LaSalle to become the state’s chief judge. But LaSalle has voted the conservative position in lower-court cases on a number of issues, most notably abortion. So, a broad coalition on the left has opposed his confirmation.
Jeffries could have urged the governor to pick a more liberal judge — or stayed out of an intraparty fight on a state issue. Instead, in a recent appearance with Hochul, he implored New York Democratic lawmakers to back LaSalle.
The congressman’s move was disappointing, but not surprising. Jeffries has long feuded with progressives and allied with more center-left Democrats such as Hochul. And it’s not just Jeffries. Many prominent Black Democratic politicians are overly wedded to a centrist, traditional style of politics. They are therefore too hostile to more progressive policies and movements that could boost Black Americans in particular. They often seem more interested in maintaining their status at the top of the political system than changing it.
For example, numerous Black mayors, particularly those in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and D.C., have strongly opposed efforts to make their cities’ criminal justice policies less punitive and to increase scrutiny of cops. Black leaders in Atlanta are supporting the creation of a massive police training center there, over the objections of activists who have dubbed it “Cop City.”
In last year’s mayoral race in Louisville, Black city council members endorsed a White Democratic candidate over two Black candidates who had been leading figures in the protests over the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) has bashed activists for using the slogan “defund the police,” claiming (with little evidence) that the phrase alone causes voters to back GOP candidates.
This resistance to progressive causes from major Black leaders is not only on policing. New York Mayor Eric Adams has weakened efforts to increase the number of Black and Latino students in the city’s top high schools. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser last year refused to endorse a D.C. ballot initiative (which passed anyway) to raise the minimum wage for workers in industries that rely on tips. On the eve of last year’s elections, former president Barack Obama suggested that an electoral problem for Democrats is that they are too focused on forcing people to use “the right phraseology.”
Some of this is simply ideological. There are left-wing Black Democrats and more centrist ones, similar to the divides among non-Black Democrats. For example, Adams is a former police officer and was once a Republican. It is not surprising that he is more conservative on a wide range of issues, including policing, than left-wing Democrats are. And many everyday Black people want more police officers on the streets, although I think that view is in part shaped by the anti-reform stances of Black leaders. (People in all demographic groups take cues from their political leaders on which causes to support or oppose.)
But I don’t think ideology is the chief dynamic at play. Jeffries is quite left-wing on most policy issues. I suspect Obama refers to people by their preferred pronouns in his personal life and knows that Democratic candidates in swing areas aren’t scolding voters for saying Latino instead of Latinx or vice versa.
What’s really going on is a divide on tactics and strategy. More centrist Black politicians tend to think that the best way to make advances in policy, particularly on issues that disproportionately affect Black people, is by working incrementally through traditional power structures. So they maintain strong ties with businesses, the police and in particular the center-left bloc that dominates the Democratic Party. This political approach puts these Black leaders in conflict with the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is more antagonistic to those power centers.
This is not a totally flawed strategy for advancing Black causes. The Black city council members in Louisville who bucked the Black mayoral candidates are now top aides in the administration of Craig Greenberg and get to decide the city’s policies. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is on the Supreme Court in part because Clyburn forced then-candidate Joe Biden to promise to appoint a Black woman to the court in exchange for the congressman’s endorsement during the 2020 presidential primaries. It’s smart for Jeffries to maintain a strong relationship with the governor of New York, since she controls so much in the state.
But this strategy has run its course. Black leaders have been trying to carefully woo traditional structures since the 1970s, when many of those who participated in the civil rights movement were elected city councilors, mayors or members of Congress. The results are that we have had a Black president and many prominent Black elected officials, but Black people in America still are much more likely to be unemployed, have zero or negative wealth and be killed by the police than non-Black Americans are. It is extremely disappointing that prominent Black politicians have been among the most vocal opponents of efforts to rein in the police, even as Memphis’s Tyre Nichols and other Black people are the victims of some of the worst instances of police brutality.
Having prominent Black politicians patiently working within the system isn’t providing enough results. We need a different approach.
Black leaders should stop bashing progressives and instead join them. This is not an outlandish idea — Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.) and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones are among the Black Democrats who try to find politically palatable ways to push progressive goals. Other Black leaders should follow their lead and spend less time trying to be beloved by the political establishment and more time trying to push that establishment to make meaningful change.“”
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