For months, our nation's capital has been floating on a undulating sea of excitement, emotions waxing and waning as the federal fishers and the Big Fish swirled ever closer to each other and the dry dock of the jury. In the aftermath of the Marion Barry trial, inevitably there will be a flood of hindsight analyses and a Noah's Ark of lessons in black and white to be pondered.
Perhaps the first lesson to think about is that on both sides of the pigmentation picket line, racial paranoia is alive and well. On one hand, it has manifested itself in the Howard Beach, Ocean City, Bensonhurst, Forsyth County situations, in the sharp increase in campus "incidents" involving the next generation of American leadership, and on the other hand, in the black community's charge of a national conspiracy against African American leaders. A predominantly white justice administrative system, already supervising a disproportionately black "clientele," is seen as a color-coded juggernaut with massive resources needlessly but perversely pursuing African-American newcomers to politics and power. Even in popular entertainment, the obscenity prosecution of 2 Live Crew is seen as selective racial persecution, leaving an Andrew Dice Clay unmolested in his purveyance of scatological schlock.
A second lesson to learn (or remember) is that a racial double standard sadly has always existed in America and that the major task, and contribution, of black leadership has been to push the nation closer toward a race-free standard of equity and justice. White Americans tend to feel that we have reached that standard; black Americans know we have not. White America congratulates itself on the disappearance of official racial apartheid; blacks know that it hides in the cockles of too many hearts. Whites and blacks alike often fall back on the double standard when dealing with one another in public life, the former often to conceal excesses of power, the latter to compensate for a power shortage.
The third lesson to be learned, and this pertains to African-American public figures, is that black leaders carry a double load -- or responsibility, if you will -- a situation that has existed from the first truly African-American public man, Richard Allen in the 1790s, to the soon-to-be-ex-mayor Marion Barry of the 1990s. This burden or mantle of responsibility is a part of the "two-ness" of African Americans, group membership of birth and rated by majority group attitudes and political membership by virtue of the Constitution. No African American is treated simply as an American in the larger society. Sooner or later, such an individual is reminded of the social ranking of his or her ethnic group membership in ways not easily forgotten. This is true whether one is an Oprah Winfrey facing a suddenly appearing "By Appointment Only" sign as she stands in front of a posh New York City boutique or Condaleesa Rice being brusquely shoved away from her spot in the official party bidding farewell to Gorbachev in California.
Knowing this, African American public figures should realize they are the focus of attention from those whom they "represent" in their ethnic capacities and those they represent in their institutional roles. No matter how high they soar in America's institutional sunlight, their ethnic shadows follow them along the hard scrabble ground of lingering racism. When ethnic differences arise over the use of power, charges of racism are virtually automatic, for racist behavior is directly a function of the power equation between groups that are differently situated in the same political and social system. Given the unfinished movement toward a racially "open" society in this country, racial accusations and racial denial, unfortunately should be expected, at the least by African Americans.
Knowing the third lesson leads to an awareness of the fourth: at this stage of the evolution of the black community, African-American public leaders have only two resources: the support of their constituent communities and personal qualities. This support actually is a trust, a covenant, for the community gauges its welfare and aspirations by the status and behavior of its de facto and symbolic leaders. Such a community is lifted by the transparent nobility of a Nelson Mandela and hurt by the less than noble personal conduct of a Marion Barry, independent of whether it is amplified via the media. And in socially "closed" communities, news of misbehavior by leaders circulates internally. In this era of the media's mania for the details of the private sides of public figures, no African-American leader should feel immune to prying eyes. Hence, every African American figure should conduct private as well as public business as a trust not to be squandered.
The black community does not have economic or institutional resources to "cover" or provide a countervailing force to protect its leaders from the slings and arrows of racism, not to mention those of outrageous fortune. Few are African American bankers, for example, who can ask a fellow but opposite race member of a Shoal Creek club to "straighten out" Councilman Wobbly before he complicates things. As in other cases of contending groups in lopsided power situations, the less powerful partner must rely on elevated principles and principled behavior to increase his or her leverage. This is the lesson taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and forgotten by too many of those who are where they are because of him.
True greatness inheres in keeping to a minimum the gap between high principles and practice. African Americans from George Washington's time to the present have been asking the nation to do this. Now that blacks are slowly entering the political system, no less can be expected of them or of others they encounter within it. This is particularly important in an era of "situation ethics" and moral astigmatism.
The last lesson to be noted here is that African-American leaders are multipurpose models, and have always been. They are, first, models to themselves in a society that has historically marked down African-American intellect and ability. They are models for their communities and models for the nation -- whether they wish to be is irrelevant. To their constituent communities in structural and behavioral crisis, they are all-important, a fact intuitively understood by many who support Marion Barry. They are models for the nation, hence the great attention given to the trips, tribulations and trials of a mayor of the capital of the world's largest media democracy. When such individuals turn out to be less than model, their communities, though violated by the breach of trust accorded their ascension in the system, are so hard pressed to accentuate the positive that they risk misleading the young about the negative.
Instead of both races talking of race relations "setbacks," they should get busy with affirming the future through constructive analysis of the present. Race relations across the nation are not what they were. The nation is suffering from an unhealthy racial "gapitis" on too many fronts (income, education, housing, health, crime) to say that one's race or racial group does not matter. White America always has insisted that race matters; black Americans have had to respond with a melancholy "amen." The people of the Washington region, and elsewhere, owe it to themselves to begin cross-racial dialogues of healing and then move from dialogue to deeds of healing and harmony. The time to start is now.
The writer is chairman of Afro-American studies at Howard University.