Some of you may remember Diana Ross’ star turn as “Mahogany” in the film of the same title. Currently the flick can be seen on late night cable and gay bars. Ross has inspired not only many a drag queen however but many black women under 40 or 50 who saw the movie during their formative years.

The movie, released in 1975, highlights a chasm within the middle and upper classes of African-Americans. The conflict between mercantile blacks and political blacks in Mahogany pits Diana Ross, a girl from the ghetto who dreams of making it as a fashion designer against Billy Dee Williams who aspires to be the alderman from their tough neighborhood in Chicago.

In the movie, interestingly directed by big business man Berry Gordy of Motown (and Ross’ husband) sends a clear message that the price of help from whites of any nationality is sexual exploitation and fetishism and “success is nothing without someone to share it with”. Ross’ character learns what’s really important which is standing by her man (that would be Billy Dee) and working toward greater political power for African-Americans. It’s a conflicting message that speaks to the fears of the times of what assimilation and equal opportunity might actually mean.

Cut to today and for many blacks, politics has taken a back seat toward achievement in business. When you look at today’s leading political blacks, the Congressional Black Caucus for example are mostly stalwarts from the Civil Rights Era or their heirs of those baby boomers such as Jesse Jackson Jr or Harold Ford Jr.

Instead, the new battleground for younger African-Americans as encouraged by our families is the corporate arena. Our heroes are not Al Sharpton nor Jesse Jackson Sr. (And yeah, you can probably see me rolling my eyes through the computer screen).

The black peer typing emails in the office next to yours has been encouraged to grow up to be a rich and powerful CEO like Richard Parsons of Time Warner, Clarence Otis of Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden — holla!), Kenneth I. Chenault of American Express, John Thompson of Symantec, Pamela Thomas-Graham of Liz Claiborne, and Ann Fudge of Xerox.

In case you weren’t paying attention, the civil rights struggle migrated from politics to the board room sometime in the 1980s and 90s. An actual historian might be able to tell us why but perhaps it might have something to do with disillusionment and impatience that political power didn’t translate as quickly into gains for ordinary African-Americans as climbing the corporate ladder as affirmative action began to open doors and fill wallets. The best and the brightest African-Americans seemed less interested in running for office or leading protests and more interested in leaping over loosened barriers to get Harvard MBAs and socially climb. Progressive meant sitting or speaking in all-white boardrooms and proving your intelligence and equality as many times as it took to get promoted.

To gain financial muscle, many leading African-Americans appeared to feel they had to cloak their political leanings behind a friendly, harmless smile. To appear as “safe Negroes”, people like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Al Roker and Jay-Z strove to show America that the most important color to them and other mercantile blacks was not black but green, baby. Whether you were conservative or liberal, white, black, brown, whatever — you could love your favorite black celebrity/mogul without resentment or guilt. Even Queen Latifah and Whoopi Goldberg toned down their images to appear safer. The message was all about sameness and minimizing difference. At the same time, awed whites began to make jokes about how rich Oprah had become and blacks started worshiping at the alter of prosperity, reading books like “Girl, Get Your Money Straight!“. Mercantile blacks had taken over.

That all started to change in reaction to the Bush Administration. It started in hip hop with Russell Simmons and the Hip Hop Political Summit and Sean “P.Diddy” Combs and his Vote or Die voter registration campaign. It was prima facie non-partisan but if your target audiences are young people and minorities, we all know the demographics are going to skew Democratic.

Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Barack Obama of Illinois are a flashback to the optimism and determination of Billy Dee Williams. They represent the best and brightest that chose not to work for Merrill Lynch for example where they might make more money or become world-famous doctors like Ben Carson MD but take what many middle-class African-Americans would see as the riskier route of politics as their road to success.

What’s different from the 60s and 70s is that their message is the hope of a brighter future not for African-Americans but for all Americans in their states no matter the color of their skin nor the size of their pocketbooks. They’ve taken the language of sameness pioneered by the mercantile blacks and have adopted it as a canny political strategy to cross socio-racial lines. They are the new Black Panthers, moving stealthily through the jungle of a new era.

What’s different from the 70s is we may be on the verge of another alliance between mercantile blacks and political blacks. Oprah Winfrey has stepped out of the political shadows out of her neutral comfort zone to throw her voice and her money behind Barack Obama. She knows she may lose some of her audience and doesn’t seem to care. She’s willing to trade the The goals of mercantile blacks and political blacks are becoming re-aligned. In part out of desperation to push the people who have sent our relatives to maiming and death in Iraq out of office. This force — last seen during the struggle for civil rights in the 1940s-60s — is what drove incredible progress and prosperity in America and not only for African-Americans, dig. It introduced lasting change from which we continue to profit as a nation today.

I’ve been telling people not to sleep on the Oprah/Obama combination for almost a year now. We’ll just have to see how powerful this force really is and what it might mean for the relationship between mercantile and political African-Americans in the new millennium.

What happens when the Black Crusaders meet the new Black Panthers — watch out!

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