Politicians Playing the Race Card

The instant the news broke that FBI agents raided the office of black Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson, and announced that they had a videotape of him allegedly stuffing bribe money into a freezer, some blacks loudly grumbled that Jefferson was the victim of a racial double standard. They noted that the FBI did not ransack the offices of Ohio Congressman Robert Ney, also under legal fire, or convicted California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, and that federal prosecutors and FBI agents generally issue subpoenas or informally request that lawmakers being investigated turn over documents and relevant materials.

But the Jefferson case is special. He has been on the hot legal seat for many months. He's been the target of an ongoing criminal investigation and a House ethics probe. He left a bitter taste in the mouths of many New Orleans residents during the Katrina debacle, when he allegedly commandeered a National Guard truck to check on his personal property and save personal belongings at the same moment nearby residents needed rescue from possible drowning.

The case is also special because Jefferson is black, but for a different reason than some blacks claim. Though he mercifully did not scream the "R-word" at his abbreviated, prickly press conference, many other black politicians do when they're indicted, jailed, accused of financial improprieties or ethics violations (as in the case of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who initially screamed race when she took a swing at a Capitol Police officer).

All, like Jefferson, were once hailed as the best and brightest among political newcomers. They were expected to instantly improve conditions in their underserved communities.

When they're popped, they wail that they should not be held to a higher standard of accountability than white officials that get caught with their hand in the campaign or union cookie jar. When they are also jailed, and pay hefty fines for violating campaign finance and ethics laws, nobody says that they have to be a cross between Mother Theresa and St. Paul.

Yet they should be held to that higher standard. Their mostly black constituents view them not as politicians, but as leaders and advocates. They look to them to represent their interests and to confront institutional power. Any legal smear on them, which in some cases may be questionable, soils their name. This makes it much harder for blacks to retain confidence in them. This diminishes their political power and influence, creating distrust and dissension among black voters. In turn, this makes it that much more difficult for blacks to generate any enthusiasm to get out to vote, or get involved in community improvement actions.

It's not just scandal that hurts black officials -- the race card hurts them too. In far too many cases, blacks accused of wrongdoing reflexively deflect, dodge, and muddy the charges and accusations against them by screaming "racism." They strongly imply that racist prosecutors unfairly target them. They then promptly wrap themselves in the martyr's cloak of persecuted civil rights fighters.

This is not a small point. In the past, when black politicians have been accused or caught with their hands in the public till, they have reflexively used the race card to deflect attention from their crimes.

During the 1990s, former Illinois Congressman Mel Reynolds screamed racism when he was indicted, tried and convicted of sexual assault charges. Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry screamed racism when he was indicted, tried and convicted on a drug charge. California Congressman Walter Tucker, convicted of bribery charges, loudly shouted racism.

Even though their knee-jerk cry of white persecution did not fly, they played the odds and reminded blacks that President Reagan's Justice Department initiated dozens of corruption probes against black elected officials during the 1980s. Given the Reagan administration's perceived indifference to civil rights and social programs, it was easy for many blacks to believe that some of these cases crossed the thin line between legitimate concern with bagging lawbreakers and racially-motivated political harassment of black leadership.

Black officials, such as Jefferson, are and will continue to be keenly watched by state and federal prosecutors for any hint of impropriety. If they engage in any forbidden activities with money, they will swiftly be called on the legal carpet. The burden of proof, then, is on them to prove that they can and will do any and everything to avoid even the slightest smudge of scandal. That may be unfair, but that's the price that they must pay to be regarded as credible and honorable black leaders and advocates.

At his press conference, Jefferson said that he would not resign. He's up for reelection this year, and even if by some miracle he escapes prosecution, the voters hopefully will show good sense and end his tenure.

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