On the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, much of coverage spilling out of the weekend was replete with hagiographic references to the civil rights movement. Commentators breathlessly debated which individuals (or rather, which movements) have the appropriate mix of qualifications and noblest of intentions necessary to represent Dr. King’s legacy.
Yet a little more than a thousand miles away in Dallas, a scandal began to percolate: Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) admitted to steering thousands of dollars in Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships to several relatives and the children of one of her top aides. The congresswoman’s actions were a clear violation of the Foundation’s own rules, and have called down the furies from numerous ethics watchdogs.
On their face, both these events might seem completely different. In truth, they can be linked together for one major reason: they illustrate the lengths to which some have gone to completely subvert the meaning of the civil rights movement. Rather than representing the best of Dr. King’s dream, many of his self-described intellectual heirs are using their public platforms to enrich themselves and those around them.
The latest African-American member of Congress to be caught engaging in ethically-questionable behavior, Ms. Johnson joins veteran legislators Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters on the hotseat for lavish malfeasance with other people’s money. Though surely the congresswoman from Dallas sets a new standard for political chutzpah: when cornered by reporters about her actions, Ms. Johnson averred that she might not have given the money to her grandchildren had more qualified scholarship applicants materialized.
Ms. Johnson’s actions are all the more disdainful when viewed in light of the scandals that have beset the Congressional Black Caucus in recent months. Many observers have been quick to accuse the CBC’s critics of racism. But in these cases, an unfortunate yet unambiguous pattern has emerged: many black congressmen have begun taking care of themselves instead of the constituents they represent.
In the midst of a polarized electorate and what is expected to be a hotly contested midterm election, one might think that congressmen of all ethnicities and regions might be more circumspect in how they discharge the public’s trust. But Ms. Johnson’s moves – and her brazen attempts to defend herself – are symptomatic of a larger disease that seems to have infected the black political establishment..
The CBC purports its mission as “positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans and others of similar experience and situation,” yet the actions of several of its members betray a hubris that suggests a belief that black public officials can operate above the rules with impunity.
Columnist Jonah Goldberg hit the nail on the head recently in decrying the claims of racism employed by black congressman and their defenders. Goldberg’s indictment is familiar to many of the CBC’s defenders, yet no less powerful: by virtue of their race and unyielding support of their voters, black representatives are shielded from the consequences of their actions. In most cases, it takes nothing short of an act of God to remove them from office.
For far too long, black Congressional representatives – particularly Democratic ones – have entrenched themselves in the Washington establishment. Their elections are often over before they even begin, as constituents overwhelmingly elect them in ways more befitting Third-World dictators for life than the world’s most successful democracy. The wages of this kind of behavior are corruption, cronyism and decisions that place these congressmen far out of step with the needs of their districts. Their constituents also do themselves no favors by claiming that every attempt to hold these officials accountable are conspiracies to take down successful African-American politicians.
Specious and morally equivalent arguments will abound about ethics troubles being inevitable for all members of our political class. Yet this is not what the occasion calls for. Invariably, defenders of will emerge to peddle theories of racism and demonstrate selective outrage on Congresswoman Johnson’s behalf. But she and her cohorts in the CBC have grown too comfortable with a lack of accountability and double standards that undermine the public’s trust in elected officials. If she doesn’t do her district a favor by resigning (admittedly wishful thinking), voters in Dallas would do well to send her a clear and unmistakable message in November.