The death on Saturday of Julian Bond, a leading 1960s civil rights leader who became chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, raises a deep question about contemporary U.S. politics: Where are today’s young Julian Bonds? Why isn’t there a clear and identifiable national black leadership for the under-50 generation?
The answer isn’t that the civil rights challenge is over. As the deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and beyond show, race remains an area of injustice in the U.S. And as Black Lives Matter protests demonstrate, people can be motivated to participate in social movements to remedy that injustice.
There are two explanations for the headless character of the new civil rights movement – and both are telling for the movement’s trajectory. The first lies in the contemporary, social-media driven nature of civil rights today. The second is Barack Obama.
Start with the answer born of social technology. As events from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Occupy have shown, it’s no longer necessary for protest movements to be led by charismatic, central figures. Once, such leaders helped motivate frustrated people to coordinated action.
Today, social media means coordination can take place in a decentralized way. Grievances, once shared, can be understood as universal. They alone are enough to bring people into the streets.
Today’s civil rights movement is the product of access to social media. It isn’t an accident that many recent protests arose from videos that went viral – many shot on cell phones. The vector of the outrage helped specify the direction of the movement.
Here’s the problem: So far, social media-inspired movements haven’t created institutional change. Hosni Mubarak fell only because the Egyptian army willed it. Occupy brought fame to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and economist Thomas Piketty but it got no results for the 99 percent.
Diffuse movements are good at protest but bad at coordinated policy pressure, which takes an old-fashioned political party or movement. And leaders, for better or worse, are part of the political process. They drive change, and speak out over time when it’s too slow in coming, as Julian Bond did.
The need for leadership brings us to the other reason why there’s no obvious heir to Bond and his generation: Barack Obama has drained the energy out of African-American leadership.
To be sure, Obama isn’t at fault, or not exactly. The historical process of electing a black president was always going to mean white Americans anointing the candidate (and the elected official) as the spokesman for black America – and at the same time imposing on him the obligation to speak for all Americans of all races.
Obama’s election meant that no other young black person could become the definitive spokesperson for African-Americans, because he or she would never match Obama’s fame, success or influence.
Of course, in some ways it’s great that no one leader needs to speak for the whole black community. Yet it’s worth realizing that, after he leaves office, Obama won’t become a race-leader either. He’ll want to preserve his unique status, and his presidential legacy – and probably his disposition – will require him to remain an American leader who looks at the interests of all. He isn’t just the first black president. He’ll be the first black former president, too.
The consequence is that Obama may well keep on sucking the oxygen out of the system of black leadership – not by design, but by circumstance. Both black and white America will look to him for leadership on race before they look to anyone else. Which means anyone else will be a distant second-best.
Noah Feldman is columnist for Bloomberg View.