I conducted an informal poll of my African American friends who live in Washington. I asked whether it matters to them whether they end up with a white mayor or not. The answers surprised me.
(I will disclose right up front that I reached only four of my friends because I was working against a tight, self-imposed deadline. I promised them anonymity, so they could tell me what they really think.)
The issue has come up again recently because of the scandals that have swirled around Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and a recent Washington Post poll that found that 45 percent of the adult District residents polled considered having a black mayor important
“It would be good if we could keep a ‘beemer,’ ” said the first friend I reached.
“A ‘beemer?’ Oh, I like that. Keep a black man working,” I replied, thinking she was using a term we used decades ago to describe a black man working.We called them BMWs, and we valued them as much.
This friend, who is in her 40s and lives on Capitol Hill, said she is more concerned with a mayor providing affordable housing, good schools and adequate health care for residents less fortunate than she.
The next friend I reached is in her 60s and lives in Northwest Washington.
“As a resident of the District, does it matter whether your mayor is black or not? You can tell me what you really think. I won’t put your name in the paper. Promise. I just want to know what people really think about this.”
There was a brief pause.
“It matters strictly what his ethics are, not so much his ethnicity,” she began. “If his ethics are good, then he’ll be about benefitting the greatest number of people and decreasing harm to the greatest number of people.”
She grew up in D.C. and in her lifetime has had only black mayors representing her. So, I was a bit surprised by her answer.
“Decreasing the harm means providing services for the greatest number of people regardless of their status or ethnicity,” she added.
The next friend I reached, a lifelong D.C. resident in his 30s, believes the race of the representative does matter.
“A white mayor is not going to be sympathetic to the needs of black people,” he began. “It matters because most people are only sympathetic to what they can relate to. And no white mayor can relate to growing up poor, without basic, necessary resources. Most white folks grew up with basic resources — or around resources. But black people, even the ones who grew up middle-class, they had cousins who were poor. They can relate to somebody calling to borrow money or needing a ride. White folks can’t relate.”
“You got some poor white folks out there,” I said.
I used to believe as this friend believes before I met white folks working minimum-wage jobs, renting a room because they can’t afford an apartment, depending on rides to work from friends who have cars because they can’t afford one of their own. I agree that a leader with empathy and compassion is better than one who lacks it.
“For them, it’s a choice. Some people are not ambitious, and they would rather work a low-paying job,” my friend said. “Black folks don’t have that choice.”
He went on to explain what he and others he’s talked to about gentrification in the District consider a “Viking mentality” of the white folks moving into the District. (But that’s another story for another time.)
I reached one more African American friend who lives in the District and has strong opinions.
“I think it’s more critical who the person is rather than what color they are,” said Dee Hunter, an old friend, who has worked for three D.C. council members and has twice run for council himself. “There’s a big difference between Phil Mendelson and David Catania,” he said, also noting that he worked for Mendelson (D), the at-large council member currently serving as its chairman, in the 90s. Catania, another at-large member, switched from being a Republican to an independent in 2004. “Phil is a more progressive legislator. I think he doesn’t want to be mayor, but he would be a great chair. He’s a detailed, very deliberative and thoughtful legislator. He’s more of a legislator than a politician. . . . It doesn’t matter if the person is black or white, it matters who the person is.”
Have we achieved what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused? Are we, ourselves, ready to vote based on character rather than skin color? Apparently, not the majority of the 1,002 people surveyed in The Post’s poll last week. But I and the four friends I polled care more about character – integrity, compassion and diligence.
Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a contributing writer for The RootDC. She is also author of “Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam” and “Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam.” Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea.
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