The Perils of Black Power

Right now, black politicians are all over the news for misdeeds. Is it a conspiracy or evidence of real power?

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What is wrong with these black politicians? The headlines in the papers are dominated by black elected officials in trouble. There's Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., stepping aside (temporarily) as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Then there's Marion Barry, the former Washington, D.C., mayor, stripped of his chairmanship of a city council committee. Finally, a couple of hundred miles north of the nation's capital, there's David Paterson, the governor of New York, under pressure to quit despite having announced he will not seek re-election.

In all three cases, it's a matter of ethics--and power. Rangel was found to have violated House ethics rules by accepting trips to the Caribbean paid for by corporations. He took fire over the past couple of years for a series of embarrassing situations, including using a rent-regulated apartment in New York as an office and failing to pay taxes on a vacation home he owned in the Dominican Republic.

Barry, whose up-and-down-and-up-and-down career is worthy of a Philip Glass opera, was censured by the D.C. city council for awarding a city contract to a former girlfriend. The council, in an unusual rebuke, voted 12-0 to take away his chairmanship of a council committee and asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate possible criminal activity. This is small potatoes to a man who was once busted on camera for snorting cocaine, spent six months in a federal prison, and yet was re-elected mayor by an adoring grassroots constituency.

Then there's the case of Paterson, the "accidental" governor who suddenly found himself in the executive mansion when Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught in a call-girl scandal. Paterson, the lieutenant governor, had not expected to play more than a ceremonial role. Once he was bumped upstairs, he had his own ethics problem, including charges that he tried to influence a young woman who had accused one of his close aides of domestic violence.

If you're a conspiracy theorist, seeing the faces of all three on the front pages of the tabloids might well drive you to suspect a plot to unseat black men in power. Last fall, Politico reported that all seven active ethics investigations of House members involved black legislators. "Is there concern whether someone is trying to set up [Congressional Black Caucus] members? Yeah, there is," a black House Democrat told Politico. "It looks as if there is somebody out there who understands what the rules [are] and sends names to the ethics committee with the goal of going after the [CBC]."

Sadly, the explanation is much more complex. All three men have fallen due to the arrogant misuse of their office, and they have no one to blame but themselves for that. But at the same time, the unusual scrutiny of African-American politicians reflects the unprecedented acquisition of power by black Americans. With 42 members, the Congressional Black Caucus is one of the most powerful blocs in House, and it was recently the subject of a New York Times investigation into its nonprofit foundation's collection and use of funds.

No one should defend the behavior of Rangel, Barry or Paterson on the grounds that white politicians have done the same or worse. African Americans should hold their leaders to the highest standards at all times. The end doesn't justify the means.

Rangel's exit from his chairmanship is a huge loss of power for him--and by extension, for African Americans. After 40 years in Congress, he finally reached the top spot of the House Ways and Means Committee, a powerful body that controls legislation on taxes, international trade and entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and welfare. The committee has played a key role in President Barack Obama's health care reform legislation.

Ironically, Rangel himself succeeded the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who came under fire for misusing House committee funds and was found guilty of slandering a Harlem woman as a collector of bribes for the police. Powell's ethical problems gave Rangel the opening to take his place. Now Rangel may face a challenge from an upstart himself.

The news media have taken an aggressive role in pursuing these black politicians. It may be that in our "post-racial" era, with a black president in the White House, editors are less worried about being accused of racism in pursuing African-American wrongdoers. But why now? Maybe it's because having finally achieved real political power, black politicians have become worthy of intense media scrutiny. The flaws and missteps that might have gone unnoticed in the past are cast in the spotlight because what they do suddenly matters.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't also scrutinize the news media. The most important decision news organizations make long before a story is published is whom to go after and whom to give a pass. We would be more comfortable with such judgments if we knew that African Americans were also involved in the process. Sadly, the news business is well behind politics regarding the "post-racial" thing.