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.
Rangel's real transgression was being sloppy and assuming that the power he had accumulated would protect him from punishment. The same hubris brought down his predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who represented Harlem for 27 years. Powell rose to head the powerful House Education and Labor Committee that crafted and passed dozens of bills outlawing discrimination in employment and education.
Powell, who — unlike the gregarious and accommodating Rangel — exuded arrogance and self-confidence, enraged Southern segregationists and was censured for misusing committee funds. He was stripped of his chairmanship and expelled from the House. He won re-election but was barred for two years from taking his seat, until the Supreme Court ruled that keeping him out was unconstitutional. Eventually Harlem tired of his long absences and handed the baton to Rangel, a Korean War hero who represented Harlem in the New York State Legislature.
For years, Harlemites sent Rangel back to Washington with the expectation that he would eventually lead the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He did — for a New York minute — until he, too, was stripped of his chairmanship. Even after censure, he could conceivably retain his seat and win re-election again — but to what purpose? No longer a chairman, he has little clout.
Rangel's legacy is harder to quantify than Powell's. For a large chunk of Rangel's career, the House was controlled by Republicans. Yet he played a key role in passing the Economic Empowerment Zone Act that has revitalized Harlem and other inner city areas. He was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War and mischievously proposed reinstating the draft — knowing that opposition would crystallize only when the middle class saw its sons and daughters off to war.
Rangel's district no longer encompasses just Harlem; it also includes large swaths of Manhattan's predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods. One reason he won re-election was that none of his opponents — including a son of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., with a spotty career as a local pol — were particularly attractive to voters. Like too many black leaders, Rangel has nurtured no successor. Chances are that an unknown would capture the seat — even someone who is not African American.
But keeping a badly damaged politician in office out of racial solidarity is not what our predecessors fought and sometimes died for. It is not unreasonable to demand that our politicians — and all of our leaders — be above reproach. And we can only regain the moral high ground that we held during the civil rights movement by holding ourselves — and our leaders — to the highest standards. We should thank Rangel for his many years of service and ask him to make way for the next generation.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.