D.C. Special Election Turns on Difference Between Race and Racism


Anytime anyone attempts to discuss or defuse misunderstandings about intractable racism in America, which is still unable to reconcile its historic and hidden affects even today, they better be prepared for some backlash. To mention racism is to tiptoe into a minefield, and all too often it is the present practice to blame the victim for the carnage from the blast.

Think of the perverse notion of “playing the race card.” Here the prevailing idea is that it is somehow wrongheaded and even racist for an African American to mention the distinctive challenges or the inherent inequities or the common experiences of being African American as if to give themselves some unwarranted and unfair advantage in a given situation or debate.

Witness, for example, the trumped-up racial controversy in the April 23 special election for the vacant at-large D.C. Council. Although D.C. celebrated Emancipation Day when more than 3,000 slaves were set free a year earlier than others in 1862, the vestiges of horrific race relations continue to color everything from school closings to unemployment to political elections.

In the latter example, some have unfairly accused Democrat Anita Bonds, the only African American woman in the at-large council race and the interim incumbent, of trying to get African Americans to vote for her simply because she is African American. Nonsense. With a long history of working behind-the-scenes for vulnerable D.C. residents, Bonds has attempted to convince voters why she best represents “their own” interests, just as the others have. They all pledge to represent all people in all eight wards of the city. But can they?

Worse, however, some detractors want to skewer Bonds, a frontrunner, suggesting she interjected race for personal gain into the campaign. In fact, she tried to respond to a racially-loaded question during a candidate’s forum recently on WAMU-FM with candor.

During the show it was pointed out that she was endorsed by organized labor and that some longtime Black Washingtonians were casting their votes for Bonds because they didn’t want the council to increase its White majority.

Ms. Bonds responded, “I’m happy to hear it,” in reaction to the endorsement, her spokesman said, noting it was not an embrace of the racial preference of Black voters he spoke for. Bonds went on to say that “the city is still predominantly Black” and “people want to have their leadership reflect who they are,” and that “there’s a natural tendency to want one of their own.” She added that some fear being pushed out of the city due to gentrification.

Her critics also clamor that race it has no place or bearing in the race. Really? Studies have indicated for decades “historical trends” in which voters cast ballots, “acting in their self interest,” says Michael Fauntroy, George Mason University political science professor. They traditionally choose candidates based on similarities in gender, economics, culture and race.

Whoever said, “all politics is local” could have easily added “and very personal.”
Surely some native and longtime Washingtonians have publicly and privately expressed their displeasure and even resentment about what they perceive as the dwindling Black political power, hard won as it was. These thorny conversations are not only occurring in the District but also in urban cities that are being gentrified all across the nation.

“The larger question is to what extent can these conflicts, just below the surface, be brought to the table and discussed?” Fauntroy asked.

Are these people racists? Are Black politicians, capitalizing on their fears, prone to play the race card? Do they have a right to resent the loss of what was once seen as “our community” and the political representation that went with it before economic and demographic changes took hold? Fauntroy said Black Washingtonians are not expressing any different nervous sentiments “than other groups who were resistant to changes” a couple of generations ago when Blacks moved into urban areas.

What was once affectionately called “Chocolate City” by the majority population has morphed, by design, into gentrified “Vanilla Village.” While the city’s population remains predominantly Black for now, but the council has gradually become represented by a majority of White members; seven of the 13, including the chairman.

Bonds, by the way, has the backing of a number of her council colleagues, Black and White.

Of the six remaining candidates running for the vacant at-large seat, only two are Black, Bonds, the incumbent; and Perry Redd, the D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate. The others include the obvious mainstream media favorite, Republican Patrick Mara; and Democrats Elissa Silverman, Paul Zukerberg, and Matthew Frumin. Democrat Michael Brown, an African American, dropped out the race although his name still appears on the ballot.

In the news stories and debates in certain circles the euphemisms used to refer to these contenders breaks down to racially loaded terms like “reformers,” “progressives” and “newcomers” versus the “old guard” and “status quo.” Guess which buzzword is for whom? The underlying message is that the “progressives” are automatically better candidates and pols than the “old guard.” Yet the council has had numerous problems with its members’ ethics and effectiveness that were clearly colorblind.

“Gentrification” gets a bad name in some quarters where folks have indeed been left behind, but the most important question facing D.C. voters is who, among the candidate field, will look out for them and who will work to ensure that they, too, can remain in the District and enjoy the fruits of its revitalization. Perhaps that is someone who knows well its people and its issues and is not afraid to confront the ones that blow up in your face, like remaining racial inequities, head on.

Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at editor@afro.com.

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D.C. Special Election Turns on Difference Between Race and Racism

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