Throughout American history, there’s been a class of African-Americans who served as diplomats between the Black masses and the white power structure. They articulated the wishes of Blacks in non-threatening language that flattered white benefactors into offering their patronage, then explained to downtrodden Blacks the rules and conditions under which that patronage would be given.
Much like that “good white man” in the days of Jim Crow, there’s a white donor lobby that demands to be flattered but doesn’t want to get too close to the pain-or the people-they claim to want to help. This is where the “negro whisperer” comes in. The negro whisperer is modern version of the racial diplomat, and their business model is giving Black people the feeling that someone’s working on their behalf, while making white people feel good enough about themselves to open their wallets. If you do that well, the doors of the cable news guest appearance and speaking engagement worlds open wide for you. So long as you stay on message. In the protest economy, the raw anger of the victimized is sanitized and when it materializes, both the white donor and the negro whisperer are uncomfortable, because both are removed from the reality of struggle.
In the 6 years since the killing of Trayvon Martin, technology and social media creates immediate mass awareness of nearly every incident of institutionalized American anti-Blackness. It has also created a new social hierarchy, a class of people who became famous through protesting police brutality. Many of whom were able to parlay that skill into lucrative outcomes, whether that be large corporate donations, awards, or becoming recognized authorities on Black suffering. In the wake of that, the question being asked is who do they help, and how do they benefit the communities they people claim to represent?
While it’s true that social justice work can and should be done on many levels, any action must center the people on the ground and their reality or it can become a circular path of opportunism and self-congratulation. There’s also an elitist attitude in modern protest about who is qualified to speak. On social media, in the press and in policy circles, the only respected voice is the college educated academic who condescends to mix with the masses because it looks good on a resume, but really only respects and listens to people in their immediate social circle. This has created a careerist version of the high school clique, with all the petty jealousy, uniformity of thought, and bullying that high school cliques are famous for.
The list of grassroots organizers marginalized by this process is a long one. It’s what happened to Stevante Clark, Erica Garner, Darren Seals, and may now be happening to Stephen Jackson, whenever Black people from working class backgrounds directly address the individuals representing the political systems they felt are responsible for their conditions. Through their words and actions, they spoke truth to power and upset the idea that justice for Black people could be accomplished through obscure jargon and abstract academic theories. That approach was never going to endear them to the protest economy and for their efforts, they were rewarded with ostracism, ridicule, and in some cases, death.
Imagine how it must feel being forced out of a conversation about your community by people who wouldn’t be there without the risk you endured to bring the conditions in your community to light?
It’s reminiscent of the conflict that happened around the emergence of the Black Power movement. The polished approach of earlier civil rights leaders was forced to make room for the angry, militant voices rising out of southern towns and northern ghettos demanding to be heard. Many old guard activists were hostile to those voices, but they had to listen and adapt, or be made obsolete.
Marginalized Black people don’t need interpreters, they need to be heard. And people who truly want to help them must first listen to them. Poor and working-class Black folks are tired of being played and are demanding results from people claiming to do things in their name. That demand is only going to get louder, and it’s going to shock a lot of people who are secure in their self-righteousness.
This essay was originally published in 2018 in a longer form. It was edited and updated to reflect the current sociopolitical climate and upcoming election cycle. -Ed.