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.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.