By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I was planning to recuse myself from commenting on the Bernie Parks brouhaha, chiefly because so much is being said so often, by so many. Yet while the Parks dialectic has ranged from turgid to trenchant -- more of the former, unfortunately, and less of the latter -- I can’t help but note that for all the words, not enough is being expressed. In particular, what does this whole thing mean to the designated local black leadership, which is carrying the Parks banner with a ferocious single-mindedness we haven‘t seen since the ’92 riots? I found their unity momentarily impressive, even heartening, but beyond the 15-minute press conferences that have proliferated in the last month it becomes clear that the matter at hand is not about retaining Parks. Instead, it‘s about retaining a viable black political presence at City Hall, and more importantly, retaining what viability is left in the idea of black leadership, period. If all this unilateral support of Parks feels symbolic, it is. It’s supposed to be.
Symbolism is no longer a byproduct of the quest for black self-determination; in the Parks imbroglio and elsewhere, the quest is often for racial symbolism itself. And in the minds of the aforementioned black leaders, symbolism has acquired its own moral weight. Resounding proof of that came last week when Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ -- one of those rare pastors of a big black church who‘s always kept a low profile -- stood before cameras and tore up a check the Mayor’s Office had donated to him shortly before Hahn announced he would not support Parks for a second term. More than a criticism of the mayor trying to buy off black leaders with hush money, the gesture was an unambiguous declaration of Blake‘s support for Parks: If cool-headed Blake is joining the fray, then there must be one worth joining.
Racial symbolism can be just and appropriate -- particularly if it’s in response to the racial symbolism of the heavily white Police Protective League spending the unprecedented budget of a million dollars to beat back Parks, who happens to be black. But the problem with black symbolism this time is the dubious force driving it -- black leadership. It‘s an idea that’s been tossed around since Reconstruction; if black community has become the most abused phrase in the American sociopolitical lexicon, black leadership now runs a very close second. The two notions are intertwined, of course, but leadership is complicated and carries higher stakes. Particularly now.
While everybody‘s got community -- from the Amish to global Internet guitar swappers -- few groups are held to leadership the way black people are. It is no small charge. Leadership requires not merely spokespeople for a whole, but direction, agendas, overarching vision and thought; while blacks are inherently no more capable than Internet guitar swappers of such things, leadership is nonetheless expected of them -- it’s what we‘re supposed to have, regardless of the feasibility of having it. Yet it’s reasonable to believe that leadership is crucial to black progress and well-being, which is still evolving on a large scale -- crucial precisely because we‘ve never fully had it. Leadership is our eternal dream deferred, our mountaintop, our holy failure that is always forgiven in one generation but never given up on by the next. Problem is, when we invoke black leadership these days we have little patience with the fact that it’s not, to say the least, sharply defined. We want it to serve our needs, our images, their deadlines -- like good cops, we want black leadership to materialize in force at the right moments and be unobtrusive the rest of the time. This is a demand made on no one else, not even the Pentagon, which had years to grow intelligence and think about terrorist attacks, and which now seems to be making up a world war as it goes along. The mighty Pentagon is granted the right of disorganization at crunch time; not us. Talk about your double standards.
The leadership that has sprung up around Parks does represent, though not in the way it‘s assumed to. Maxine Waters, John Mack, et al. are reacting not on behalf of the black community (whose opinion no one has really bothered to measure thus far) but to their own deep disappointment that Hahn did not deliver what they wanted. This disappointment, by the way, is not purely political. This whole Parks episode is more emotional and personal than anyone is willing to say; it’s about betrayal and wounded pride, frustration and a search for redemption, a third-act scene in a sweeping tragic opera of waning black fortunes in the new millennium. Bishop Blake all but said last week what others had only intimated -- that the mayor publicly reneged on a backroom promise he had made to a group of prominent people like himself. However veiled that promise, and however reasoned Hahn‘s decision not to support Parks, it was still a betrayal, and the betrayal is what’s most real. The rest is immaterial. The keen sense of loss over the golden era of Kenneth Hahn and his staunch cultivation of black politicians is also very real: The former county supervisor passed away nearly a decade ago but those who prospered under his auspices are only now realizing, with discomfiting finality, that Hahn is dead in more ways than one.
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