One Step Forward…

The Senate will seat Roland Burris, but the racial realities at play are a stark reminder of progress not made.


In the end, Roland Burris will likely be the next senator from Illinois. The law and cynical race politics are on his side. That simple fact was largely obscured in yesterday’s political theatrics. In a damp, cold rain, Burris showed up on Capitol Hill and was met at the perimeter by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, Terry Gainer, himself a Chicagoan like Burris. The embattled appointee was escorted into the Capitol where the secretary of the Senate rejected his attempts to be sworn in.

Burris attempted to go to a press conference across the street, but the media mob around him slowed his progress considerably. His trip to the microphone was four or five times longer than the press conference itself. Chilled by the drizzle spotting his wire-rimmed glasses, Burris asserted that he was the junior senator from Illinois, recited the chronology of his rebuff, took two questions and left, promising to fight.

This is not the travesty that some people might envision. Burris is not equal to the man he will replace, but almost no one else in the Senate is equal to Barack Obama.

Burris will not embarrass himself in the Senate. When the Democrats need it, or when Illinois needs it to count, Burris’ vote in the Senate will be as significant and valuable as that of anyone else who might have held the seat. A yea is a yea is a yea! And a nay is often more.

But the drama and the chaos attached to the Burris appointment has less to do with Burris’ fitness for the job, or Blagojevich’s authority in naming him to it, than it has to do with how we would like to think of ourselves and our politics in the age of Obama.

After Obama’s two-year seminar on what some have described as post-racial politics, the Burris controversy has thrust us backward into a refresher course on the realities we wanted to believe we are above: big city politics woven through with race and corruption.

In a master stroke of political cynicism by Blagojevich, the Illinois governor has ensured that the debate going forward—for the time being, at least—will center on Burris and not him. The U.S. Senate has to decide whether it is willing to deny a seat to a black man who has done nothing wrong to disqualify him from the seat.

The sad reality is that the Senate’s own history works in Burris’ favor. In the 40-plus years since the passage of civil and voting rights legislation, there have only been three black senators. And the man who led the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act in 1964—Robert Byrd of West Virginia—was present when the Senate reopened for business yesterday.

The pressure to maintain some black presence in the Senate is awkward against the backdrop of the impending inauguration, and clearly, Burris’ race is a poor reason to seat him. But the all-white Senate will not have the luxury of the moral high ground. The sad and cynical race politics that will eventually cause the Senate to relent is a reminder of how much progress Barack Obama represents and how much progress the country has yet to make. The irony, of course, is that Illinois is the last place where race should dominate a discussion about senatorial politics. Only three blacks have been elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, and two of them have been from Illinois, both in the last 20 years.