Marjorie Valbrun is a contributor to The RootDC.
After the 2010 elections, it seemed a safe bet that the District would continue its 12-year streak without a major political scandal. The image of a city run by a crack-smoking mayor was a distant memory, no longer visible in the rearview mirror as successive mayors drove the District on the road to municipal respectability.
Washingtonians took pride in their city’s improved reputation, particularly longtime black residents who lived through the embarrassing arrest of former mayor Marion Barry on drug charges.
The civic pride began diminishing in the past few months, after D.C. Council members Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame R. Brown, both Democrats, were forced to resign. It came to screeching halt when a federal investigation implicated three political aides to Mayor Vincent Gray in a scheme involving boatloads of illicit campaign contributions and irregularities. Everyone is waiting to see whether Gray will be charged next.
Now some of those black residents, upper-income professionals born and raised here and deeply invested in the District’s standing, feel an acute sense of shame. They see the District’s achievements and failures as a representation of their collective image and worry that these political scandals will reflect badly on the black political class and even on the larger black community.
“As a black person and fifth-generation Washingtonian, my head is hung low,” said Elaine Robinson, a public-relations executive. “It’s so sad.”
Robinson lives in a Northwest neighborhood commonly referred to as the Black Gold Coast. She said that she didn’t vote for Gray and that she’s not surprised about the allegations of corruption and malfeasance dogging him.
“I think he should resign,” she said. “It would save people a lot of heartache.”
As corruption scandals go, the District is no more scandalous than the political imbroglios that have shaken other city and state governments over the years. But this is the District, and like other cities grappling with racial divides — whether they are black and white, or black and Hispanic, or Latino and white — the latest scandal has another dimension that has put some black residents on the defensive.
“People who have a local perspective, rather than a larger perspective, view everything bad that happens in the District as a negative thing about them,” said David Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C.-based think tank focused on political and public policy issues.
Indeed, in public forums and online conversations, commentators have noted that the former council members forced to resign, as well as everyone charged so far in the campaign funding case, is black. In The Washington Post’s online reader comments section, one post said the District is little more than a corrupt African country. It was one of the milder race-tinged statements posted among dozens of others about black politicians being inherently corrupt and incapable of governing.
Here’s one from someone identified as Nash1492: “The leadership dynamic here is borrowed from the worst of the worst in modern Africa (i.e. the Congo, Angola, Ivory Coast, etc). It goes like this: Because D.C. belongs to the black citizens, the only metric to measure the politicians by is whether they are black and whether they will resist anything which can be identified as “white.” Thus we much accept and support corrupt government. this nonsense only serves the kleptocracy. IT DOES NOT SERVE THE BLACK CITIZENS. Thanks.”
Of course, no broad-minded observer of any color would buy into such biased notions, but these perceptions have currency in some quarters and are often raised — by both black and whites — when a black politician gets in legal trouble. Never mind that no one judges entire white communities when a white politician stumbles. If they did, white residents of Illinois, for example, would have a lot to feel ashamed about, because four white governors of that state have been sent to prison in the past four decades.
“Corruption happens everywhere,” Bositis said. “There are corrupt governments all over the United States, there are certainly some people who would like it to be the narrative that ‘Oh, it’s a black thing.’ But if you look at it statistically, it’s not so.”
Some black people feel obliged to push back against such views, while others choose to ignore it.
“It is background noise to my life,” said Sheryll Cashin, an author and law professor at Georgetown University who writes about race relations and lives in Northwest’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. “I didn’t vote for Gray, and I make no excuses for him. I am more concerned about whether and how Gray performs as mayor than racial stereotypes being propagated by others based on his and other black politicians’ behavior. Black people are too busy just trying to keep their heads above water to have to worry about the reputation of an entire race.”
If anything, they worry about it too much, said Rudolph Chandler, who also lives in Shepherd Park.
“There is a little bit of over-sensitivity in the African American community about their leaders,” he said. “But it’s true that in the past, black leaders were held to a different standard than their white colleagues.”
George Walker, Chandler’s husband, sees the very idea of black collective shame as being provincial. Neither he nor Chandler is originally from the District.
“It’s different between those who grew up in Washington and those who came here to work and have a different perspective,” he said, adding that outsiders see the District as being a world capital and not just an American city with a distinct political culture. “I would be a little more embarrassed if D.C. didn’t exist within the federal government.”
Walker is head of strategic partnerships at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports LGBT candidates nationally. He added that there are many other black political leaders in town that didn’t have the whiff of corruption surrounding them.
“I have a great amount of respect for Attorney General Eric Holder, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Melody Barnes, former director of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council,” he said. “These people are black leaders, and I’m certainly not embarrassed by them.”
And, of course, there’s the most famous black political resident: President Obama.
“I just think his leadership is important and helps me be really proud of what our leadership looks like,” Walker said.
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