IT WOULD BE poor form to say explicitly that D.C. government is flawed because the leadership is black. So there are a variety of code words, a variety of rationalizations; none of it is very subtle, none of it pretty.
The ugly reality is that there are still those who sneer and smirk and sigh at D.C. government because its leadership is predominantly black. One might characterize this as vestigial racism, or as the persistence of a contemporary colonial mentality among those who settle in the District from elsewhere and never really consider themselves part of the community. Whatever its name or source, the phenomenon is there--certainly not as widespread as it was 20 or even five years ago, yet relatively plain to those who listen with sensitivity to disgusted complaints about the city and the caliber of its leadership. Complaints not just at Georgetown dinner parties and Cleveland Park cookouts, but in Capitol Hill hearings and even among some blacks on the Gold Coast and elsewhere.
In reality, there has been steady progress in the quality of D.C. government since home rule; more and better people, particularly blacks, are taking an active role. If one examines the quality of leadership in other local governments, the District doesn't look bad at all. And things are getting better. Grim days on the school board seem over, at least for now, but were never worse than Boston saw when its school committee dealt with desegregation. Lapses of wisdom on the council are by no means rare, but then take a look at any legislative body facing difficult issues. Fiscal woes have plagued many older cities, yet it is clear that since home rule, and especially under Mayor Barry, D.C. has been better at coping than many other cities. It has been a difficult time of declining revenues, with elected officials trying to do everything with nothing when everybody needs something. Rational comparisons with other places make it clear that, for just about any performance indicator one might imagine, D.C. government is at least in the reasonable range, not floating near the incompetent bottom.
This is not to say, obviously, that criticisms of the D.C. government or black politicians are usually (or even often) racist--that is just another type of ugly charge, occasionally made by some in order to intimidate or suppress both deserved and undeserved criticism. And everyone, everywhere complains about government these days. But it is important as the campaign heats up to face the issues of quality and performance fairly and carefully, and not let judgments be swayed by misleading, racially biased assessments contrary to the facts. Unfortunately, that still happens in this town.