Adrian Fenty's Charm Deficit
The ouster of Washington, D.C.'s mayor is a reminder that it's not enough to be a black politician. You have to convince black people that you really like them.
(Kris Connor/Getty Images)
2. Marry a dark-skinned woman. I do not think that Obama married Michelle Robinson in a deliberate drive to have a politically useful spouse. However, the fact that she is not light-skinned and is also tall -- i.e., a woman of husky physical substance -- was a major factor in putting him over with black audiences, women in particular (remember this one here at The Root?). Fenty's wife isn't dark and, more to the point, grew up in England and has that accent. Which could make some wonder, "Would he have married a real sister?" Which brings us back to, "Does he like us?"
The third and final thing I mean quite urgently, as even Obama is screwing up on this:
3. Don't be shy about making it clear that your plans are pro-black. One cannot be a "black mayor" any more than one can be a "black president." Yet too often, efforts to avoid seeming partisan in this way discourage black people from seeing what pro-black legislation even is, instead eternally waiting for some kind of replay of 1965.
The Bushies would have lost nothing by publicizing that No Child Left Behind and the Faith-Based Initiatives were race work. Obama would be better off making clear that increasing funds to community colleges is all about helping the person today who is laboring under a consensus that without a B.A., "ain't no jobs."
Fenty would possibly be on his way to another term if he had obsessively underlined, in speeches throughout D.C. and all over YouTube, that his school-reform policy was pro-black, a direct legacy of the Great Society, and evidence of every bit as much love of black folks as Marion Barry has.
Fenty rolled in on the wave of a notably thorough block-to-block campaign strategy but somehow lost that thread when it came to making ordinary black people understand that fixing the schools was for them, with love -- even if it meant disrupting some good people's lives.
It should have been a tsunami of apologies, explanations, huggings of children, visits to classrooms week after week, working the media to get all of this out there 24-7. Fenty thought he could just do things. Sorry.
Black politicians of the Joshua Generation should realize that it's not all about people voting their "interests." And that just being black in the definitional sense will take you only so far. Newark, N.J.'s Cory Booker has a better knack for the whole business than Fenty -- although he'd best be careful whom he chooses to marry.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.