Black faces in high places have a responsibility

OPINION: What is the point of having Black leaders in white spaces if they do not fundamentally change the systems that oppress us?

Black leaders,
(L-R) New York City Mayor Eric Adams (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Gabrielle's Angel Foundation ); U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images); U.S. Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C.(Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Black people, when you make it to the top, do you kick down the ladder or help other people climb up? Are we trying to help everyone or just help me, myself and I? Are we in service to people or an empire that is harming Black folks, Indigenous people and the marginalized? Are we water carriers dousing water on a Big House engulfed in flames? And when we witness injustice and exploitation, how large of a bag would it take for us to shut up and look the other way?

These are questions we must ask these days, with turmoil both at home and devastation in Haiti, Sudan, Congo and Gaza. On Founders Day at Spelman College, honorary degree recipient and Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin mentioned the popular social media slogan “trust Black women,” and urged the students at the HBCU to be trustworthy and not allow themselves “to be conscripted into positions of power that maintain the oppressive status quo.” 

“Black faces in high places are not going to save us. Just look at the Black proponents of Cop City in Atlanta’s leadership class,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Black faces in high places are not going to save us. Just look at the Black woman’s hand — ambassador at the U.N. [Linda Thomas-Greenfield] — voting against a ceasefire in Gaza,” she added.

Days later, Prof. Benjamin was a faculty observer for pro-Palestine protesters at Princeton, where students occupied the graduate school administration building and formed a Gaza solidarity encampment to force the university to divest from Israeli apartheid.

And there’s Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, a global and international studies professor at U.C. Irvine who was one of 50 people arrested by cops who broke up a peaceful pro-Palestinian campus encampment. When asked if she was concerned her actions could threaten her job, Willoughby-Herald replied, “What job do I have if the students don’t have a future?”

What would you do: Stand with the students or play it safe and not mess up that good job?

There was once a time when Black “firsts” were lionized and worshiped in the Black community. They still are to some extent. Think of back in the day when Black people were so excited to see a Black face on TV, in the Major Leagues or more recently in the White House. But what is the point of having Black fashion accessories to spice up and color up white spaces, when they do not fundamentally change systems that oppress us, and they do not bring other Black people up with them? All around us, we see policies that are harming us, and there are Black “leaders” who are advocating for these policies.

Some of these Black faces in high places remind me of Fela Kuti’s song “International Thief Thief (I.T.T.),” in which the artist sings about white multinational corporations propping up and paying off a Black man “with low mentality”:

Them get one style wey them dey use
Them go pick one African man
A man with low mentality
Them go give am million naira breads
To become of high position here
Him go bribe some thousand naira bread
To become one useless chief

With that in mind, consider that Eric Adams — the Black mayor of New York City who is still recovering from his appearance on “The Breakfast Club” — used the first Latino NYPD commissioner and sicced the police on pro-Palestine college protesters at Columbia University. This was done at the behest of Columbia’s first president of Arab descent.

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Jeh Johnson, former Homeland Security head under Obama, sits on the board of Columbia University and Lockheed Martin, a military contractor and major arms supplier to Israel.   

Adams wants to use Israeli drone technology for the NYPD and praised Israeli police for how they “strategically and successfully deal with a large crowd” when he visited the country. The NYPD also has an office in Tel Aviv and works with Israeli law enforcement on counterterrorism. The mayor, described by his mentor Charles Barron as “profoundly disappointing,” called the Columbia students fighting for college divestment from Israel “professional agitators.”

Kaz Daughtry, a Black NYPD deputy commissioner, went on Newsmax to claim the Columbia students are “terrorists” and “outside agitators” who are being radicalized. Daughtry even claimed the cops found a book on terrorism — actually a history textbook from a well-known British scholar — on campus.

Most of all, as the Washington Post reported that a group of billionaires — including business leaders, hedge fund managers, financiers and real estate developers — formed a WhatsApp chat group and had a Zoom call with Mayor Adams to convince him to unleash the police on the Columbia protesters, even offering to use private investigators to assist the police in their efforts. And of course, they offered him money.

Mayor Adams, who would criminalize students for expressing themselves, faces a federal investigation into campaign finance corruption involving Turkey and is the subject of a sexual assault allegation.

Back to that Black U.N. ambassador that Ruha Benjamin mentioned at Spelman. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield had her invitation to speak at Xavier University and the University of Vermont rescinded because of Biden’s support for Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. Black U.N. officials such as Thomas-Greenfield seem to raise their hands extra high in the air to support racist and colonial policies that serve U.S. imperialism at the expense of darker-hued people of the Global South.  

This came only days before Biden was scheduled to give the commencement address at Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King, on May 19 — Malcolm X’s birthday, no less. Like his U.N. ambassador and for the same reasons, Biden faced protests from Morehouse students, alumni and faculty who believe he should not receive an honorary degree.

While we know that old-thinking white dudes from the 1950s like Biden feel a certain way about bombing brown women and children, what is the Black woman’s excuse? At what point does Linda Thomas-Greenfield simply quit her job, like other Biden administration officials — including those of Palestinian and Jewish descent — already have over the Gaza genocide their government is funding?  

Does Professor Benjamin have a point? Look at Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court justice who cares more about receiving expensive gifts from wealthy donors and protecting his insurrectionist wife than helping his community. Meanwhile, Tim Scott, who said America isn’t racist and dropped the ball on police reform legislation on purpose, is out here skinning and grinning at white Christian nationalist commencement ceremonies as he auditions to be Trump’s running mate.

Perhaps we can do better. We can and should demand and cultivate Black leadership guided by ethics, morals and social responsibility. Those Black faces in high places who promise to bring change from the inside — once they get the promotion, just not today because now is an inconvenient time — may never deliver. So we must take the reins, save ourselves and become the leaders we need.

Toni Morrison said it best: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

David A. Love,

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is