‘Last Chance’: A Call for Stronger Black Leadership

Posted June 16, 2008 at 4:23pm

Lee Daniels has a dire message for African-Americans: The financial strain spreading across the United States is likely to hit them especially hard unless they step up their national presence during this year’s presidential election.

In his new book, “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America,” Daniels argues that a rapid winnowing of American society into the haves and the have-nots will continue unless the United States, particularly black America, finds a way to revitalize its national leadership.

“There has been a crisis in leadership in America in the past 25 years,” Daniels, a former reporter for the New York Times and the Washington Post, said in an interview. He added that he believes the Bush administration has been “disastrous.”

“Black America has experienced a decline in vigor of the NAACP and the National Urban League at the national level,” Daniels said. “Each has specific local chapters that do very good work and are very vigorous, but they have declined as a national force significantly.”

Despite the strength of local leadership, the inequality gap will continue to grow unless black America coordinates national action in November, Daniels said.

“America is not immune to the forces of capitalism pressing on the rest of the world,” Daniels said. “The American middle class is being squeezed enormously, which means the black middle class is being squeezed even harder. Unless that problem is fixed, there is very little that black America will be able to do in and of itself to prevent the decline in affluence.”

The idea for the book came to Daniels in the winter of 2006 while he was reading columns by conservatives expressing their disappointment with the Bush administration. “Looking at the Bush administration as white leadership led me back to thinking about the black civil rights movement and political leadership in comparative terms,” Daniels said.

Daniels also was inspired by what he calls the “crisis of illegal Latino immigration.”

“The backlash in early 2007 to the compromise immigration bill put forward by Bush and [Arizona Republican Sen. John] McCain, among their own conservative base, was extraordinary,” Daniels said. “It took me back to the backlash of the early 1960s and the civil rights movement.”

While Daniels was working on the book in the fall of 2007, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) was still leading Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the polls for Democratic presidential nominee among white and black voters. Nevertheless, Daniels said he is not surprised that Obama is now the presumptive nominee.

“There is lifted morale for a black American gaining the White House for the same … general reasons that a group of American women were so determined to have Hillary Clinton win the nomination,” Daniels said. “It will be a marker and open up role-model possibilities.”

Daniels said the most difficult part of his research was trying to keep up with the public reaction to the Obama campaign. “The volume of comment, particularly on the racial aspects, was and remains voluminous,” Daniels said. “It’s all about racial identity. … Having a black American first family is perhaps even more extraordinary than perhaps having a black American president.”

Although the primary season illustrated how significant the race question is for Obama, Daniels said the press has neglected to examine the race issue for presumptive Republican presidential nominee McCain. “The mainstream media has not said one thing to John McCain about, ‘What are you going to do about the race question?’”

Daniels also said it is unlikely that black America will give significant support to the Republican Party unless it offers blacks something in return. “Democratic administrations have always proven to be better than Republican administrations as far as the economy and marching deeper into the American mainstream,” Daniels said. “It is not that black people don’t vote for Republicans, it’s that Republicans don’t offer any reason for black Americans to vote for them.”

In addition to reporting, Daniels has served as a professor at Harvard University and as the editor of the National Urban League’s publication, “The State of Black America.” He became the director of communication for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund two months ago, after finishing “Last Chance.”

Daniels’ journalistic background is clearly reflected in his smooth writing style and integration of black history and current events. His book hit stores June 9, in time to provide readers with a new framework for thinking about the 2008 presidential campaign and what lies ahead for black America.