Adrian Fenty's Charm Deficit

Adrian and Michelle Fenty at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Dec. 2009.(Kris Connor/Getty Images)
Adrian and Michelle Fenty at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Dec. 2009.(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Mayor Adrian Fenty's loss in Washington, D.C., last week was a crying shame. Black wiser heads muse about how the system prevents black people from voting "their interests" — Harvard Law's Lani Guinier comes to mind — and yet black D.C. residents kicked out a mayor who, along with schools chief Michelle Rhee, was making the first serious difference in decades in the city's notoriously decrepit school system.


Last time I checked, public education was supposed to be pretty high on the list of black people's "interests." Especially among what Guinier termed "authentic" black people — by which she meant ones rooted in the black cultural experience. D.C.'s pretty "authentic," no?

The official post-mortem is that Fenty's reforms required firing and stepping on the toes of too many black people themselves, including ones in the teachers unions. But let's face it: There would be no way to change an urban school system without doing those things.


More to the point is the idea that Fenty did these things in a highhanded way. But here, we have to get even more specific. The actions of dismissal and stepping on toes are, inherently, highhanded. The question is how to do them without giving offense, which is something different.

Upon which we come to what Fenty's essential problem was: He wasn't charming. If one weren't a fan, one might note a certain air of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns around his eyes. And he always seems as if he's really waiting to get home. 

And then there was something especially apropos: He was uncharming in a way that tended to make some black people wonder whether he "liked" them. It's a major factor in the electability of a black politician, "interests" aside. Carl Rowan's line: "The mayor may be a cocaine junkie, a crack addict, a sexual scoundrel, but he is our junkie, our addict, our scoundrel." Fenty would never have attracted that brand of allegiance. No one ever doubted whether Marion Barry liked black people.

But for Fenty to be booted out on this basis, having pulled off what he had so far, really is a "My people, my people" moment. It makes me think that aspiring black mayors (as well as presidents) need to keep certain things in mind before making their way with black voters. The first two things I have in mind are meant more or less in earnest:

1. Take some Ebonics lessons. Not in street slang, but the cadence. Saying "-in" for -ing here and there — which Fenty does — isn't enough; white Ivy grads now do that as a matter of course. Take a listen to how Obama lets the music of a phrase hang at the end in that preacherly way when he's talking to black audiences, and the way he often enunciates, in those settings, -y as "-ih" — "responsibili-tih," and so on. That dual salute to the church and the street resonates with a black audience. It sounds humble, warm, "real" — and instantly, all know that you like them.


Harry Reid was right: A black pol won't get far sounding like Dave Chappelle. But as much as I hate to say it, what a white abolitionist once said to Frederick Douglass would seem to be correct in these times as well: "Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; it is not best that you seem too learned."

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.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. 

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