IT SAID IN THE NEWSPAPER I work for that some of this town's black politicians have decided to back the expected reelection bid of Marion Barry lest their disunity pave the way for the election of -- horror of horrors and get your women and children indoors -- a white. There goes the neighborhood.
In fact, the newspaper article mentioned only two politicians -- the mayor and City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon -- but race is so dominant a political factor in Washington that just about everyone seems to assume that both blacks and whites have a collective stake in the outcome of the mayoral election. The Post article put it this way:
"The rationale for a pact between Dixon and Barry is that black Washingtonians must unite behind someone or run the risk of losing even their current limited home-rule control of the city to whites, or to a black candidate controlled by whites." The reason I have italicized the work "their" is because it illustrates how some people apparently think that if a black is mayor, then all blacks somehow benefit. The flip side of that, of course, is that if a white is elected, whites benefit and blacks either do not or, worse yet, suffer.
This is the trickle-down theory of racial politics. I am tempted to run out into the street and ask the first black person I meet how life has improved for him or her since the election of Marion Barry, which followed, after all, the equivalent of a lifetime under Walter Washington. By now, things ought to be just wonderful. And then I would dash out to the West Coast and ask the first white Los Angeleno how awful things have become since Tom Bradley became mayor.
The truth, of course, is that the election of a specific black or specific white tends to make a big difference only to the people around him. They do get rewarded and they are better off, but this phenomenon has nothing to do with race. It has to do, instead, with good old patronage and while it may trickle down a bit, it does not trickle down very far and not exclusively on the basis of race. Patronage, you will discover, is an equal opportunity phenomenon.
One of the problems with injecting race into politics is that it assumes a common interest for each race. Thus, whites are thought to have one agenda and blacks another, but anyone who has ever spent more than a day in this town would realize that this is not true. When it comes to agendas, there isn't much difference between a middle-class black family and a middle-class white one. Their concerns are schools and public safety and city services, and I for one doubt if anyone cares about the race of the mayor if the garbage doesn't get picked up.
Anyway, all this talk about race would be perfectly harmless if it did not obscure issues that really matter. Notice, for instance, how there is little talk about plain old political positions -- about programs and ideas and ideology, about the budget or even what has happened to the public libraries. These are the things that really matter and they happen to matter a lot more to the people of this city then does the race of their politicians.
No matter. The politicians continue to talk about race and the reason for that has nothing to do with race itself, but with politics. It is a way to exclude, to divide, to reduce the competition. In Washington, race serves the purpose of the old political clubhouse. What counted there was loyalty and patronage and not such effete concerns as ideology or government programs.It is the same now with race. Once you are the "right" race it doesn't seem to matter what your politics or ideology is. It's your race that counts. Bring up the question of race and people stop thinking.
But race should really count for little. It's probably true that in general, a black person would be more sympatico with the black majority of Washington, maybe even with the black underclass. But we don't vote for people in general, we vote for specific people who offer specific programs. Being black or being white is not a program, not an idea, not an ideology and to talk about it as if it were is just another lie politicians -- white, black, yellow or whatnot -- tell the people. It is a way of covering up, of disguising failure, of asking people to suspend judgment on performance and instead rally around soley on the basis of race. If it works, color us all neither white or black. Color us patsies.