Quick! True or False. Are black politicians subjected to more harassment than their white counterparts?
No, you say? That's not what Mary R. Sawyer says. Sawyer, a professor at Iowa State University, who happens to be white, says, based on her research, "I believe the harassment is real."
In the mid-1970s, Sawyer undertook an extensive research project. Her goal: to learn whether black officeholders are treated differently from white politicians.
To get the facts, Sawyer traveled to cities and states where black politicians had either been recently elected or had attained their offices within the past 10 years.
Contrasting newspaper clippings and a wealth of other data on these black officials with those of their predecessors, Sawyer found that the white public, as well as the media and even the prosecutors not only held black public officials to a higher standard, but also deliberately harassed them in ways that they did not treat white officeholders.
"I found a pattern of harassment of black officials," said Sawyer, whose 10-year-old study, "The Dilemma of Black Politics," written for the National Association of Human Rights Workers, is soon to be updated. "I believe the harassment issue is real today."
Why do whites harass black politicians? In the 265-page report, Sawyer found that position and political philosophy played a role.
The highest black elected official in a given jurisdiction was often "the more probable target" for harassment, which she found ranged from anonymous death threats to "unfair media treatment" and selective prosecution.
Sawyer stressed that neither her old study nor her follow-up claims that wrongdoing or corruption among black officials did not exist, but that "the scrutiny . . . is more intense, that investigations are pursued on the basis of less evidence, that stories are printed with less solid information so there is an inequity in how black officials are treated as opposed to how white officials are treated."
And while she found black and white elected officials scrutinized in the media, "we detected an eagerness and a malice where black elected officials are concerned that is not present with white elected officials."
In terms of the public, Sawyer blames two related reasons for the problem. "Some whites are personally affronted and threatened by the prospect of blacks having power over their lives. For the business community, black officials may pose a threat to established economic interests and business as usual."
But Sawyer says the issue extends beyond blacks' wielding power in the business community, or even the issue of minority contracting.
"Around state houses, city halls and county buildings across the country, you can now see black employes where you would never have seen them before." Things have changed so much in the last 20 years, she says, that there are now cases of black officials' being charged with reverse discrimination.
Indeed, there are some 6,000 black elected officials around the country, and Sawyer thinks those numbers, combined with the conservative climate, may be part of the problem, boding continuing hard times for black politicians.
"The posture of the Justice Departrment is anti-affirmative action and anti-civil rights enforcement, which is certainly consistent with increased harassment of black elected officials," says Sawyer. "The Justice Department is not concerned about enforcing civil rights, it is not concerned about . . . involving black participation in the electoral process. In fact, reversing civil rights gains, and reducing the numbers of black elected officials, may be their goal."
Of course, not all whites object to blacks holding public office. However, Sawyer points out that some whites feel that blacks defend corrupt black officials rather than expose them, and in doing so lose credibility. The truth, says Sawyer, is that "blacks are as astute as anybody else and can differentiate between officials who are engaged in gross misconduct and those being unfairly accused."
How do black politicians respond to harassment? Some go as far as to say that it's a national plan to discredit black leaders. But in the wake of recent Contragate hearings, who knows?
Others say they don't want special treatment; they merely want to be judged the way that white politicians are.
They want to be a part of the game. And exactly what is the game? It is American democracy as it has never been practiced before.