Monday, February 28, 2005


The death of 13-year-old Devin Brown at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department has generated a wide array of complicated emotions in the black community, including shock and anguish, confusion and introspection. Why, people wondered, was this boy killed? .... But while the community searched for real answers to complex questions in the days after the shooting, the traditional black leadership of the city did no such thing. Instead, our leaders reacted in ways that were all too predictable.

The Urban League's John Mack immediately jumped in - before the investigation had even been opened, much less completed - saying, "Some police officers don't value the lives of young African American males." The ever-pugnacious Rep. Maxine Waters beseeched the community to "demand justice." The NAACP's Geraldine Washington said police were supposed to " protect and serve, and they've got it wrong."

Not only were these responses predictable, but they were inflammatory, offering new reasons to question the health of America's civil rights advocacy groups, not just in Los Angeles but across the country. The leaders of these groups say they represent the interests of black Americans, yet it seems increasingly clear that their lives rarely touch the lives of those they claim to speak for and, in many cases, that they never move outside their own cloistered, out-of-touch activist circles....

In a desperate search to maintain their own relevancy, these groups have insisted on making white racism their nearly singular focus. This has not served them well.... With rare exceptions, the quest by civil rights groups to recapture the vibrancy and relevancy of a bygone era often leads to the advocacy of issues that cause a great deal of head-scratching. This tendency was exposed by the recent shameful episode involving Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, where Rep. Waters (backed by a host of community activists and other leadership figures) led a series of protests and demonstrations in an attempt to "save our hospital" - even though the hospital teeters on the brink of closure because of irregularities that resulted in the deaths of patients. It was stunning to watch leaders arguing that efforts to close a hospital that was killing its black and brown patients was somehow the result of a conspiratorial racial animus toward the black-run institution.

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