Sorry, Charlie, It’s Time for a Change

Perhaps he's being held to a higher standard than white politicians accused of wrongdoing, but Rep. Charles Rangel has enjoyed unwavering voter support over 21 terms in Congress. In return we have a right to ask that he be above reproach.

Charles Rangel listens to the Ethics Committee. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Charles Rangel listens to the Ethics Committee. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s time for Charlie Rangel to go. After a tumultuous ethics trial that he walked out of, a House committee has recommended that Rangel be censured by the House of Representatives for almost a dozen ethics violations. Yet the Harlem congressman clings to the seat he’s held for 40 years and continues to plead for mercy. It’s unlikely the full House will vote to oust him, even with the covey of Tea Party freshmen screaming for liberal blood. Ironically, he’s protected by a Supreme Court ruling involving his predecessor and by his usefulness to Republicans as a model of Democratic excess.

His constituents won’t like the idea of his stepping down. Last Sunday, Rangel spoke at a memorial for Dorothy Height in Harlem, and speaker after speaker, including ministers and elected officials, rose to praise him and hail him as a hero. Nobody dared say, “Charlie, you did wrong. You violated our trust, and you frittered away the clout we had built by sending you to Congress 21 times.” His overwhelming victory in the midterm elections was proof that his constituents remain forgiving.

We know why African Americans are so reluctant to publicly chastise or punish their leaders when they do wrong. Forty-five years after winning equal legal status through the civil rights movement, many of us still view our community as being under siege. Not airing our dirty linen in public is a mantra, often used mindlessly — if sincerely. An attack on one prominent African American is seen as an assault on all 40 million of us, and we still cringe when a black man or woman does wrong or is accused of wrongdoing.

The election of President Barack Obama was supposed to give us new hope and new confidence. The racial barriers, if not completely gone, had been lowered considerably. But the treatment of Obama in the media and by the Tea Party has created new sense of alarm among African Americans. We can’t prove it, but we detect a special viciousness in much of the criticism and a lot of the coverage, especially from Fox News, which — to borrow a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — engages daily in a high-tech lynching of the president. Just two days ago, Fox ran a story with the headline, “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General,” which questioned Obama’s choice of Sitting Bull as one of the heroes in his children’s book.

Then there is the constant drumbeat of racially charged commentary from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who seem exempt from consequence. Even the rejection of the Democrats in the midterms, so soon after the Republicans handed the rubble of eight years of misrule to Obama, suggests an unwarranted lack of faith in his abilities. This is something that so many blacks have experienced in the workplace, whether we’re staff, managers — or NFL quarterbacks.

Many fair-minded Americans will see Rangel’s punishment as extreme. He is the first congressman to be censured in 27 years. Not Gary Condit, who apparently had an affair with an intern; not Ohio’s “Buzz” Lukens, who had sex with a young black woman when she was 16; not Mark Foley, who was also accused of improper contact with congressional pages in 2006. The last censure vote by the full House of Representatives went against Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Daniel Crane, an Illinois Republican, in 1983 for sexual misconduct with pages.