If experience teaches anything, it's that experience itself is not wisdom. The experience of my immigrant grandmother was European antisemitism. Thus, she was convinced that the prosecution of the atom spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was just another pogrom. The experience of senior journalists was that presidents don't order or condone burglaries. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein naively suspected otherwise. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but it can get you a Pulitzer.
This brings us to Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP. His experience is racism. Hooks drank from "colored only" water fountains, cooled his heels in segregated waiting rooms and, as a soldier stationed in Georgia during World War II, guarded Italian POWs. They ate in restaurants from which he was barred.
Now Hooks sees racism in the prosecution of Marion Barry and other black officials. "Over-zealous, hostile -- if not racist -- district attorneys and U.S. attorneys will bring a black official to trial on the flimsiest evidence," Hooks told the NAACP's 81st national convention in Los Angeles. Hooks never mentioned Barry in his speech, but afterward he acknowledged that's who he had in mind.
Hooks's outburst may be understandable, but it is nevertheless regrettable. His speech was a paranoid's brew -- one part fact, one part falsehood and a garnish of innuendo. He said an inordinate number of black public officials have been prosecuted recently but supplied no figures. He said the Barry investigation had cost the government "$40 million," a wholly concocted figure first used, apparently, on a Washington radio show. What Hooks did not say is some 7,000 blacks now hold public office. Among other things, racial progress means that black as well as white politicians have the opportunity to be crooks.
Hooks was being more emotional than rational. Trouble is, he was giving credence to Barry, who, more rationally than emotionally, has suggested he has been prosecuted on the basis of race. After listening to the trial testimony, though, the wonder is not that the government arrested Barry but that it took so long to do so.
We now have allegations from almost every bimbo and drug user within the Beltway that the mayor routinely used drugs. We know that the mayor's girlfriends and drug partners sometimes got city contracts. The sting operation was -- and remains -- troubling, but it's a separate issue. It in no way obscures what is for some the more important issue: the behavior of Marion S. Barry.
If it's true that even paranoids can have enemies, then it's possible that some black politicians have been selectively prosecuted. Indeed, if that were not the case than this ain't the good old U.S. of A. But by any standard, Barry's behavior has been despicable -- and not the least of it has been his race-baiting. His addiction, if that's the case, is tragic and maybe beyond his control. But his cavorting, his junketing, the use of his public office to secure and reward women -- all of this is repugnant. Hooks, though, will not say so.
And neither will most other black leaders. Their silence or, worse yet, their proclivity to yell "race, race" when any black politician is prosecuted hardly advances the cause of civil rights. By both excusing and, in effect, shilling for Barry, these leaders lose their moral authority and, eventually, their audience. Many whites looks to black leaders for guidance. For instance, Hooks is now pressing the White House to accept a new civil rights act. He says it's needed, and indeed, it may well be. But his argument carries a lot less weight when he seems to see racism where it isn't.
To whites, there is really no such thing as a "white leader." There is, though, such a thing as a black leader -- or leaders -- and to many whites they appear to speak for a whole people. That might be regrettable, but what's even more regrettable is that the voices coming through are those of Barry or Louis Farrakhan here, Alton Maddox and Al Sharpton in New York and others elsewhere who claim constituencies as big as their mouths. If there ever was a silent majority, it's blacks, who, in effect, have been told to swallow their repugnance of Barry in the name of racial solidarity.
Hooks could have spoken for those blacks. He could have condemned the sting -- and condemned Barry's behavior as well. Maybe that's a lot to ask for, but then courage, both moral and physical, is what got Hooks to head the NAACP in the first place. Instead, though, he reflexively drew on one part of his experience (racism) and ignored another: the role played by sympathetic whites in the fight for racial equality. By yelling "racism, racism," Hooks risks losing the ear of those people. When he needs them next, they may no longer be listening.