A question of race is raised

November 4, 2013

When a reporter asked the question, it was startling because everyone is so used to the interpretive dance around the “r-word,” race, particularly when it comes to describing opposition to any move by the administration of President Barack Obama. After Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a vote on the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, press secretary Jay Carney was asked if the White House saw a racial motive. Carney said, “I think it is about politics, and I think we’ve seen this kind of obstruction far too often. For individual motivations, you need to ask the individuals.” The answer was as cagey as ever.

In Watt’s case there were other reasons given for the rejection: political philosophy, or the belief by conservatives that the congressman would favor more federal involvement in the home mortgage industry; competence, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) questioning Watt’s “technical expertise and experience,” and, of course, the brick wall of senators, such as Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has said he wants more information on last year’s attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, before he will approve much of anything.

Senate Republicans have blocked the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, President Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Senate Republicans have blocked the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, President Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

It is also true that Republicans chose the nomination of Watt — a black Democrat from North Carolina — for the rare though not unprecedented move of filibustering a sitting member of Congress in a sub-Cabinet but still important post. (Republican Sen. Richard Burr of Watt’s home state, with Rob Portman of Ohio, did split with the GOP to support Watt.)

Since an African American family moved into the White House, race has and has not been a factor, depending on the lens through which one views it. The president is reluctant to talk about it and his opponents are quick to deny it as having anything to do with their agenda. Symbols are important, though, and during a protest during the recent government shutdown, there it was, a Confederate flag flown in front of the house of the first family – a black family — an iconic sight that hit some as mere political theater and others as a punch in the gut. Few who oppose the president on policy said a word about it.

Actions by Republicans to earn the trust and votes of minorities have been undermined when – as recently happened in North Carolina – an outreach effort is followed by the messy resignation of a county GOP precinct chairman after an unapologetic “Daily Show” reference to “lazy,” government-dependent black people.

Taken as part of the partisan paralysis in Washington, the vote against Watt is not unusual. But when looked at as part of a pattern of disrespect of an African American president of the United States, it was perfectly logical that a reporter would ask if Watt’s rejection was tinged with a racial motive.

Certainly civil rights groups were prepared for a pushback. The chairs and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus all supported Watt.

On Wednesday, in a conference call that ultimately did not achieve its goal of holding back opposition, leaders of rights organizations called for Watt’s confirmation, particularly because federal housing policy greatly affects communities hardest hit by the recession and slower to recover even as the economy improves.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “No sitting member of Congress has been successfully filibustered since before the Civil War,” and added that denial of cloture would set a disturbing new precedent. He said the conference, made up of a coalition of more than 200 national organizations, was “working to build an America that’s as good as its ideals,” and represented “communities that have faced tremendous economic setbacks due to the housing crisis.”

Henderson said conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, which said it would score senators on their cloture vote, were part of a “hyper-political attack” by the same forces that shut down the government. Others on Wednesday’s call included representatives of the Center for Responsible Lending, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza.

After Thursday’s vote, Henderson said in a statement that “many senators chose to kowtow to the Club for Growth and Heritage Action and undermine millions of struggling homeowners who want nothing more than a chance at financial stability.”

When I spoke with Watt in May after Obama nominated him to lead the FHFA, he said, “If the financial industry is saying I’m too consumer-oriented, and the consumers are saying I’m too industry-oriented, I’m probably walking the right line in finding an appropriate balance.”

Apparently, enough of his fellow of members of Congress disagreed, and the fate of Watt’s nomination is uncertain for now. However, there will no doubt be more questions about the motives of his detractors if opposition to Obama’s appointments and agenda hardens.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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