Memphis congressional campaign shows limits of race-baiting

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Forty-two years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. lost his life to an assassin’s bullet in the city of Memphis. The outrage sparked violence across the country, culminating in divisive and destructive race riots which defined the end of the Civil Rights Era in the United States. King’s dream had been to achieve equality through non-violence and racial reconciliation, but in the end Frederick Douglass’ prophetic words came to bare: “Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will”.

Nearly half a century later, Memphis now stands as one of the crown jewels of Southern cities. Vibrant and growing, with African-Americans representing 63 percent of the population. Willie Herenton, the former mayor of the City is best known for becoming the first African-American elected to that office. He is currently engaged in a bitter contest for the U.S. Congressional Seat of the Ninth District of Tennessee, which represents a large proportion of the Memphis metropolitan area. His opponent is a Jewish-American, Steve Cohen who has over 30 years in public service experience, and the unique honor of being one of only two non-blacks in the entire US Congress representing a majority African-American district.

By all accounts Cohen is a well-deserving official. He recently received President Obama’s endorsement for the seat, prior to the primary next month. Other black officials and supporters laud Cohen’s hard work on behalf of his constituents of all races and hues. Herenton has responded viscerally by infusing race into the debate, with claims that this Congressional seat should be held solely by African-Americans; appealing to voters by invoking the inequalities of the past.

At 70-years-old, Herenton is using the politics of race in a dated context which is often reflective of people of his generation white, black or otherwise. Though we can certainly benefit from his knowledge and experience, the electorate should not be limited by his perspective. Being black is simply not enough to guarantee the African-American vote.

So much has been discussed over the past few weeks in light of the racial animus from the Tea Party movement, the NAACP’s response to racial slurs and commentary, Shirley Sherrod’s pre-emptive dismissal based on allegations of reverse racism, and the apologies from the right, the left and the White House when those allegations were proven false. The mainstream media and politicians have called for a national dialogue on race: a subject many Americans are simply exhausted of engaging. African-Americans accept that examples of racial disparity and discrimination still exist throughout society, but also understand that focusing too much on it may well hinder our progress.

Though the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow have left their indelible stains, the past 50 years of racial ambiguity have also seen racial equality become a reality. President Obama said it best in his famous “race speech” during the 2008 presidential campaign:

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. ..Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race and racism continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

Like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Willie Herenton has proven himself to be the kind of man who has achieved much, and overcome great obstacles, in a nation that did not always make his journey easy or even possible. But he has also proven to carry great animus of his own in response to those experiences. On its own, there is nothing manipulative about those feelings, but as a former elected official, now seeking higher office, voters must consider Herenton’s intent. By sparking racial undertones, is Herenton exploiting race for his own political ends?

The New York Times recorded some of Herenton’s racially charged remarks against Congressman Steve Cohen. In a radio interview he said, “To know Steve Cohen is to know that he really does not think very much of African-Americans. He’s played the black community well.” Herenton’s campaign manager, Sidney Chism, has also weighed into the conversation stating: “This seat was set aside for people who look like me. It wasn’t set aside for a Jew….it was set aside so that blacks could have representation.”

Chism’s remarks are a reference to 1972, when the Ninth Congressional district was redrawn to ensure that the majority black population would have an opportunity to elect officials reflective of their political needs and representative of their voice. What followed was the election of Harold Ford, Sr. who held the seat for 22 years, and was succeeded by his son Harold Ford, Jr. who maintained that legacy for a decade before leaving the seat to embark on a failed Senatorial campaign.

However, to dismiss Steve Cohen as simply any other white politician, incapable of representing black people in Congress, is a misguided and uninformed perspective. Mr. Cohen is a well-known Memphis liberal who has famously written a national apology for slavery and the Jim Crow laws, and received an “A” rating from the NAACP. The New York Times quotes Cohen as stating: “I vote like a black woman. I don’t know the black experience, but I know about being a minority and being discriminated against because of religion.” Voters should take Cohen at his word and examine his record.

Herenton would like to make the election a referendum on representation based on race, perhaps because his own political integrity has been questioned recently. For more than a year, a grand jury has been investigating accusations that Mr. Herenton benefited from his private real estate business while mayor. His real estate company allegedly received $91,000 in 2006 for the development of a downtown Greyhound station that he supported while in office. Though he has denied wrongdoing in the case, he resigned his seat twice in the face of these allegations, only to change his mind. Once he finally left office, he later announced he would run again for Mayor, only to abandon those plans to pursue the Congressional seat. I cannot deny Herenton’s accomplishments and his 40-year commitment to public service, but I would encourage the electorate of Memphis to question his motives.

Like Herenton, many of our parents and grandparents were born into an America where racial divides were prevalent, legal and often expressed through violence. Generations X and Y have not inherited a new world, without its ugly past. All politics are local and historical. We cannot divorce our present and our future from its past. The challenge is to not become mired in the past, but to understand it, accept and appreciate the lessons learned from it, and then move on — with the goal of not repeating it.

Race should no more be used to justify privilege and exclude the less fortunate, than it should be used to manipulate elections by decrying the ills of the past. African-American voters, like all others should vote on the merits of the candidate. We are equally capable of exercising color-blindness in our electoral decisions and embracing the rainbow coalition society in which we all live.