In Budget Battle, GOP Congress Targets Black Town As Its Whipping Boy -- And Dems Go Along
As the dust clears from the 11th-hour short-term budget deal negotiated by congressional leaders and President Obama on Friday night, it becomes ever more obvious that in order to appease the carnivorous appetites of Tea Partying freshmen in the House of Representatives, $38 billion in disastrous spending cuts were not quite enough.
In order to craft a continuing resolution to keep the government open that would pass the House -- minus the riders that would have eviscerated the EPA's authority and eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- the Tea Partiers needed just one more pound of flesh. The bone thrown over the fence was nothing short of the autonomy of the people of the District of Columbia, a town led by African-Americans.
To you, Washington, D.C., is the nation's capital, the place where, for better or worse, the sausage gets made.
To me (and 600,000 others), the District of Columbia is my home town, a place unique in its native culture, with a rich and often painful history, especially in matters particular to race. Until the 1960s, the District was a segregated city, even though, ever since World War II, African-Americans were the majority racial group.
It wasn't until 1973 that District residents were permitted by Congress to elect our own mayor, and ever since then, the face of municipal power has been African-American. And the city, over all, reliably votes Democratic in national elections. How sweet it must have been, then, for Tea Partiers to prevail in their demands about what the people of the District may or may not do with the local taxes the District collects.
So while the Congress was thwarted from defunding Planned Parenthood, it did manage to proscribe the District from using its own, locally derived revenue to provide poor women with access to abortion services. After all, in the District, those women will likely be black or Latino, so who cares?
Congress also foisted, without any discussion with District leaders, a school voucher program on the District, whose public education system is already reeling from the failed experiment in union-busting, teach-to-the-test, authoritarian approach of former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has since come out in favor of the union-bashing of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. (While the voucher program has a complicated history -- it had some support among middle-class residents in its first incarnation, and then was
ended allowed to expire by the Democratic Congress in 2006 -- it was just slapped back on the District without any discussion even as the city's education leaders struggle to pick up the pieces of the Rhee years.)
At least as bad as the individual provisions slapped on citizens of the District -- who do not have the benefit of a voting member of Congress, despite the fact that we pay federal income tax, just like everybody else -- is the insult hurled at the city by Congress's actions, the implication clearly being that you can't trust those black folk to govern themselves.
Think I'm reading too much into this? Then consider the Tea Party's rhetoric about local control and sovereignty, and all those constitutional glories. Were the mayor and council of the District white, I sincerely doubt it would be deemed okay by all involved to treat civic leaders of a major city as if they deserved to find themselves looking up at the heel of a boot. Our congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, says she was consulted on nothing during the course of the budget negotiations.
Since the exit from the mayoral stage of the ignoble Marion Barry, D.C.'s elected municipal leaders have been of the business-friendly, presentable type of big city pol -- the current mayor being no exception. That's why it was so shocking and invigorating to see Mayor Vincent Gray and members of the District Council conduct a civil disobedience protest outside the Hart Senate Office Building yesterday -- one that got them all arrested by the Capitol Police. Gray, council members and supporters didn't just make a ruckus; they stopped traffic on Constitution Avenue when they sat down in the middle of that major Capitol Hill thoroughfare.
The police held them for six hours, for sitting down on a street in the town they were elected to govern -- the only way they felt they could be heard.
Meanwhile, in the Capitol Building -- built with the labor of African-American slaves (PDF) -- the House will take up the budget measure this week, and Democrats will vote for it. After all, the Democratic president, an African-American himself, brokered the deal.
Meanwhile, in that southern town known as the District, a bitter taste lingers. A friend, born and raised here, once explained to me that the District is a plantation, and Congress is the master. And now the master answers to the call of those who deem themselves patriots, dressed in the language of liberty, to whom some are apparently more equal than others.