Understanding George Allen's Best Black Friend
Benjamin J. Lambert III, who serves in the Virginia Senate, hears the question all the time: Why would such an influential black Democrat come to the rescue of George Allen, a white Republican U.S. senator who was being tarred and feathered by his own racist past?
Allen's once seemingly sure-shot bid for reelection remains in jeopardy because of accusations that he used a racial slur and the fact that he had an affinity for racist symbols such as nooses and the Confederate flag. But the political hemorrhaging has eased somewhat since Allen found a powerful new best black friend to help burnish his image.
"I look at it from the point of view that people are capable of change, of learning from their mistakes," said Lambert, a 28-year veteran of Virginia electoral politics and former campaign manager for L. Douglas Wilder (D) during his run to become the first African American governor since Reconstruction. "George has apologized. He said he understands the plight of African Americans and their sensitivities regarding the Confederate flag. He said he was going to do much better. I say, 'Let's give him a chance.' "
It is no coincidence that Lambert's endorsement came after a pledge by Allen to secure nearly a half-billion dollars in federal funding for financially troubled historically black colleges. Moreover, at Lambert's urging, Allen, along with Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), announced their sponsorship Monday of a bill that would honor the late U.S. District Judges Spottswood W. Robinson III, who was black, and Robert R. Merhige Jr., who was white, by having a new federal courts building in Richmond named after them "for their historic roles in the nation's civil rights struggle."
No small order in the capital of the Confederacy.
Asked if Allen's financial commitments had influenced his decision to endorse, Lambert demurred: "Let's just say I have a strategy."
But not everybody is convinced that a half-billion dollars is adequate reparation for Allen's alleged insults, which some see as evidence that the racist underpinnings of Virginia's virulent history of slavery live on.
One blog, Skeptical Brotha, offered a reaction to Lambert's endorsement that is no doubt shared by many African Americans: "George Allen's confederate bandwagon of confused colored folks has grown by another this week," the blogger wrote last month.
Other blacks who support Allen include William R. Harvey, president of historically black Hampton University, and Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson, both retired professional football players who were coached by Allen's late father on the Washington Redskins. "For these manifestly fraudulent endorsements, these contemptable black sycophants have earned themselves Skeptical Brotha's '2006 House Negroes of the Year Award,' " the blogger wrote.
But Lambert is undaunted. To hear him tell it, there is always more to racial politics in Virginia than meets the eye. Sometimes a whole lot more -- as in, say, the legendary affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
"I was born in 1937 and went to segregated schools in Henrico County," Lambert told me. "But I had white friends. Somehow, we all got along. I found that people could be different up close than they appeared to be from afar."
To Lambert, Allen looks better up close. He is more than someone who referred to a person of color as "macaca," which is a genus of monkey. "I'm not going to hold a person's words against them, especially after they stand up and apologize," Lambert said. "I'm most interested in education for African Americans, making sure historically black colleges stay in existence, and I'm going to work with anyone who can help keep them alive. George and I share that goal."
As for people who call him a sellout, Lambert said, "What have they done to keep a school open?"
And yet, the appearance of Allen buying his way out of a racially explosive predicament discounts the black struggle against racism -- which continues despite the insistence of some whites that race no longer matters. During a speech in February about the need for a U.S. Slavery Museum, former governor Wilder, now mayor of Richmond, noted that slavery and racism were not ancient history. "The legacy of slavery is as much a part of our present and, if left alone, will tragically remain a part of our future."
Wilder has publicly expressed bewilderment at his former campaign manager's decision to support Allen. But in private talks with Lambert, Wilder does not come off as confused at all. "He asked me to talk to George about getting money for the slave museum," Lambert recalled.
Race relations are not always what they seem. And in a state fraught with racial contradictions, macaca may turn out to be a gift to African Americans that keeps on giving. At least if Lambert has his way.