GDM: For two reasons: First, the story of harassment helps us to understand the contradictory nature of racial politics in the post-civil rights period. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed for the desegregation of American politics and the election of a black president in 2008, so too did it lead to the rise of a racially conservative Republican Party and the repression and later disproportionate investigation of black elected officials.
Second, we live in a political world shaped by the people and forces black elected officials identified as the architects of harassment — people like presidential aspirant and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani and Jefferson Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
TR: How did this harassment and repression affect the impact that African-American officials were able to have politically? How might things be different now if it hadn’t taken place?
GDM: It certainly convinced many blacks that white-controlled government institutions — specifically law enforcement — could not be trusted. You can’t have faith in the FBI if the FBI is allegedly targeting your political leadership for repression. You can’t turn to the Department of Justice if the Department of Justice is prosecuting black voters for exercising their right to the franchise.
It also encouraged racial mistrust and animosity. Many white Americans believed the FBI agents, U.S. attorney or local reporters who accused black elected officials of criminal activity. Most blacks, on the other hand, believed that it was the white authority figures that were acting illegally.
Last, it injured the careers of some promising African-American elected officials.
TR: Do we see any echoes of harassment of black elected leadership today?
GDM: Yes. At this very moment, the House Ethics Committee is investigating a number of black members. Now, let me be clear: Some, perhaps even all, of these members should be investigated. I am not equating harassment with innocence. Just because investigations are racially disproportionate does not mean that they will not uncover wrongdoing.
That said, many of the complaints that lead to these Ethics Committee investigations were made by conservative groups with long and questionable histories of filing politically motivated complaints against Democrats and black Democrats in particular.
An example is in order here: In the last three years, well over a dozen black members of Congress have been investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee. Half of these investigations were filed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a self-described “conservative watchdog organization” founded by movement conservatives Peter Flaherty and Ken Boehm, both veteran leaders of Citizens for Reagan; the Landmark Legal Foundation, an antilabor, conservative legal group led by Reagan administration veteran and shock jock Mark Levin; and Judicial Watch, a conservative good-government group. In other words, conservative groups are using the House ethics process to attack their political opposition, and some are downright frivolous.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.