Do black congressmen still represent black interests?

OPINION -- All eyes are on Rep. Charlie Rangel again this week as finger-pointing Republicans continue to pursue punishing him for ethics violations...

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All eyes are on Rep. Charlie Rangel again this week as finger-pointing Republicans continue to pursue punishing him for ethics violations. Rangel’s own financial shortcomings landed him in this situation. His very own, and well-deserved Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, is at stake. But in a world where perception reins supreme, Rangel’s financial woes may likely have far-reaching and negative implications not only for him, but the people he first came to Congress to represent.

Congressman William Clay, Sr. once claimed, “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.” As a fellow founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), this statement characterized not only Congressman Rangel’s political beliefs, but defined his fundamental mission: to represent the underrepresented political interests of black Americans.

But things have changed. Rangel co-founded the CBC with thirteen members in 1971; today, they boast a membership of forty-two. The number of black elected officials at every level of office has increased six-fold during this time and more than ten-fold in some states, according to the last count by the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies. Once an anomaly, black faces are now relatively commonplace throughout the country’s legislative corridors. Normal. Ordinary. Typical. This is supposed to be a good thing, right? A measure of racial progress to be sure?

The problem, though – as some see it – is that when they were few, folks like Rangel were black politicians – politicians whose mission was shaped by their fidelity to the racial group to which they belonged. Now that they are many, some say they have become nothing more than politicians who just so happen to be black, placing their own, personal and primarily financial interests above those to be served. Some would say that the black interests of 1971 have taken a backseat to the personal interests of individual black congressmen and women of this millennium.

For instance, almost one-third of CBC members were considered “underachievers” or “derelict” in a 2006 report by the Black Congressional Monitor, a progressive interest group which tracks the legislative initiatives of black congressmen and women. From stash-of-cash-in-my-fridge William Jefferson, to former Congressman Al Wynn, Bobby Rush and others once criticized for selling their votes to the powerful telecommunications lobby, the group castigated many on the CBC’s roster for putting their own interests first. The best interests of their black constituents or civil rights causes came second, they claimed.

The accuracy of such a report is only one thing to consider. More importantly, we must consider the fact that there is a growing perception that today’s black politicians aren’t the democratic defenders of the race many once saw them as.

This is one of the primary reasons that Congressman Rangel’s recent financial mishaps may end up costing more than just one man’s position or reputation. Rangel’s taxing forgetfulness, alongside media reports framing Rangel’s actions as a triumphant escape from ethical accountability, simply reinforces the notion that today’s black representatives don’t work for black Americans, they work for themselves. But the implications of Rangel’s actions and the circumstances surrounding them may reach even farther.

Once there is widespread perception that black representatives are no different than typical politicians, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to the conclusion that black politicians no longer serve the purpose they once did of safeguarding black interests. Add to this the fact that over the past decade or so, many black politicians who rely on white voters’ support have gone out of their way to make the case that they can represent whites’ interests, despite the fact that they are black. There is, of course, no forgetting the obvious: that a majority of the nation gave a giant stamp of approval to the principal these black politicians were pushing when we elected Barack Obama President of the United States.

In concert with other factors, on one hand Rangel’s financial woes erode the perception of legitimacy regarding the special representative function of black representatives in today’s legislative landscape. On the other, we’ve seen the transformation of the black politician from a mere local, race-constrained representative, to one who could be president. Together, these realities seem to powerfully undermine the underlying principle – that blacks can best, and therefore should, represent other blacks.- behind using racial gerrymandering as a tool to increase black representation.

Republicans have opposed the practice of drawing seats to secure the adequate numerical representation of blacks and other people of color for years. But the most recent debates questioning the principle behind the practice have taken place among Democrats. One was the fight that erupted in 2006, when Brooklyn City Councilman David Yassky ran for retiring Congressman Major Owens’ seat (one of the original gerrymandered safe black districts). The other began in the same year when Steve Cohen- a White Jewish man – successfully challenged a number of black hopefuls for the Tennessee congressional seat vacated by Harold Ford, Jr. The same debate, over the same seat, continues at this moment as a new black prospect – former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton – seeks to correct what he sees as the district’s racial wrongs.

In the mounting debate over and undermining of the principle of racial gerrymandering, Republicans will likely see a golden opportunity to justify diluting the concentrations of blacks and other minorities in the looming redistricting battles soon to occur as we approach the end of the decade. This would be a blow to the principle of equal representation, as some of us interpret it.

One would have to make a giant leap to say that Congressman Rangel’s actions will directly affect this consequence. But the fact that his actions may contribute to it in some small way should give him and other black members of Congress pause, at long enough to realize: be careful when you claim to – quite literally – represent the race, because you might do so in ways you never intended.