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BOND: Cornel West writes, “The crisis of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you think there’s a crisis in black leadership in communities today, and if there is, if you think so, what makes that so?
JEALOUS: Yes and no. I think that there’s a crisis in our communities that comes from the physical distance between the black middle class and black people who are struggling in their everyday lives. And it plays out in many ways, in some ways quite personal. There was a study done in the ’90s on the spike in black teen suicide and what it came down that it wasn’t the black kids in the inner city who had access to guns who were killing themselves more frequently, it was the privileged black kids in the suburbs who were lonely, who were more socially isolated than any group of black children had ever been because they were so far away from the sort of agrarian norm that either we experienced in the rural south or we replicated in the inner city, that they were just simply the most profoundly isolated, socially isolated group of black children ever born in this country.
On the other extreme is that, you know, you stand in central Harlem in the mid-’90s when I was an organizer, you didn’t miss white people. It wasn’t white flight you were concerned about. You miss middle-class black people. You miss the people that came in their big cars on the weekend to church and they got out of there as quickly as possible because they didn’t want to get mugged. And in that phenomenon is a certain disconnectedness and the danger at this point in our history is that if we don’t recommit, whether it’s to the NAACP, whether it’s to a black church in the inner city where our family has gone to historically, if we don’t recommit to maintaining that sense of connectedness, we’re only two generations — what the suicide study showed that was simply what was happening to black children in the ’90s had happened to white kids in the ’50s. We’re just two generations behind white families in sort of the nuclearization and suburbanization of middle-class families and the atomization of families so the poor cousins don’t know the rich cousins and when that happens, leadership fundamentally changes because the sense of obligation to advocate for people less fortunate diminishes when you no longer see those people as being part of your family and sharing a blood connection with you.