The Common Good
May-June 2001

Not Walking the Talk

by Lisa Y. Sullivan | May-June 2001

'Would they defend a brother from the hood in the reverend's same situation?'

I have been keeping track of black public discourse on Rev. Jesse Jackson ever since this "black American dirty linen" got aired and it became public that the reverend fathered a child outside his marriage. Truth be told, this isn't a new or shocking story line inside the black community. It's only scandalous when it involves an "upstanding" community member. Remember, Malcolm X fell out of favor with Elijah Muhammad when he learned that Muhammad fathered children with several of his secretaries. More recently, we learned that basketball legend Julius Irving has a daughter outside his marriage. A couple years ago it was Bill Cosby's turn.

Maybe this explains why so many black elected officials, civil rights activists, and clergy have either been silent or gone out of their way to declare Jackson a national treasure and trumpet his leadership. Most of black America has been willing to dismiss this embarrassing episode as a deliberate attempt by the system to silence Jackson's voice.

Several prominent black columnists, on the other hand, have concluded that Jackson's baby scandal may well accelerate a loss of stature and moral authority that had already begun. Likewise, the Internet was awash with absolutely hilarious Jacksonian poetry and rhymes illuminating the gravity of the reverend's behavior.

It was, however, in the neighborhood barbershop that I heard the sobering perspective of poor black youth and young adults. Jesse, a young brother told me, "he got child care issues! The only difference," the young man continued, "is that he can pay for his and I can't pay for mine. I've never listened to those cats, politicians and preachers, telling me to stop making babies outside marriage. Brothers like me see them out here in the wee hours of the morning creeping around getting their sex on and they ain't with their wives. Why I got to stop getting my groove on but they can do their dirt?"

POOR BLACK YOUTH have known for a while that the moral authority of black leadership was at best co-opted and at worst bankrupt. Preachers and pimps, I have been told too many times by black youth, are cut from the same cloth. Try having a conversation with an inner-city teen or young adult about established black leadership. I guarantee the word "hypocrite" will be uttered within the first few sentences. Many black youth feel a loathing, even disdain, toward black leaders who have made careers out of judging black youth morally unfit and worthy of tongue lashings about their values and "dysfunctional" behavior.

Another young man decried the double standard. "Hip-hop athletes and entertainers are regularly criticized for their out-of-wedlock children by black middle class leadership, but some of these same people came to Rev. Jackson's defense," he said. "What has C. Delores Tucker said about Rev. Jackson? What has Rev. Calvin Butts said? Betcha neither of them would stand up and defend a poor black brother from the 'hood in the reverend's same situation."

The double standard that black youth feel operating in their communities is undermining their faith in black leaders to walk their talk. The depth of this black youth skepticism can be cut with a knife. Most don't believe anything adults in leadership say because they understand the double standard rule is in play. Even those with unimpeachable moral records who are silent on this issue are complicit; their silence—which implicitly condones the behavior—is indeed betrayal.

Dirty linen and all, it's time black leadership examined its behavior and the impact it's having on the moral development of black youth. Yes, we're all human and imperfect, but black youth deserve to see ethics and integrity at play in their lives and in their community leadership. Moreover, black leaders need to stop browbeating black youth for behavior they still engage in. It's time black adults stop with the double standard and practice what they preach.

Lisa Y. Sullivan is founder and president of LISTEN Inc., founder of the Black Student Leadership Network, and former director of the field division of the Children's Defense Fund.

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