Sunday, July 23, 2006

There's No Place For Racial and Religious Pandering In Memphis Politics, Whatever Its Source

The ugly underbelly of Memphis politics was exposed this week after a whisper campaign against Tennessee Senator Steve Cohen by some African-American political leaders burst into the open.

For weeks, some well-known African-American politicians have demeaned the campaign season – as well as themselves -- as they spread some of the sorriest rumors injected into the local political scene. Human nature is human nature, and we try to keep our expectations grounded in reality, but still, it’s discouraging that some people who had the courage to demand that society reject stereotypes and bigotry are so willing to traffic in them themselves.

It really doesn’t matter whether we support or oppose Senator Cohen in his race to replace Harold Ford Jr. as Congressman for the Ninth District, recent developments should disturb us all.

It was a test of our local political maturity that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton have received key bi-racial support, and in his race for re-election, Mayor Wharton has been endorsed by the mayors of the suburban cities.

Subterranean Racism

This is not to suggest that there is not residual malignant racism present in our city, but we take comfort in the fact of how far it has been forced underground as we served notice that racial slurs are not acceptable political tactic and prejudice is not a campaign platform.

With this year’s race for Congress, it feels like we have taken a step backward. At a time when African-American elected officials have a powerful chance to remind us of the tolerance and inclusiveness that lay at the heart of the Civil Rights movement and gave them their long-deserved place at the political table, some instead resort to the lowest form of political rhetoric.

Regrettably, the candidacy of Mr. Cohen seems to somehow threaten the status quo (although his record includes strong support of civil rights and related causes) and the black power structure to the point that some local politicians treat the prospect of a white, Jewish Congressman representing Memphis in the U.S. House of Representatives as cause for hysterical concern and "anything goes" tactics.

Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton, another candidate in the Congressional race, has tied himself in knots trying to explain away his use of the term, complexion, to describe his concerns with the Cohen candidacy. Commissioner Bolton’s examination of alternate meanings of the word and efforts to illuminate its etymology explain nothing so much as what he was clearly trying to say about Senator Cohen’s race.

Code Words

Meanwhile, others have engaged in code words worthy of George Wallace as they have railed in recent months against the prospect of a white politician assuming a Congressional seat that they see as a pre-ordained “black seat.” These comments broke into the open with City Councilwoman TaJuan Stout Mitchell’s letter to the editor of The Commercial Appeal, which displayed the racial and religious baiting for all to see.

She wrote that the candidate’s ideology should represent the majority of residents in the district, rather than the majority of votes in an overcrowded race. Based on that strong statement of belief, we’re surprised she hasn’t been insisting that City Council members and the city mayor must be elected with a majority vote rather than a plurality.

She continued by questioning Senator Cohen’s character, saying that most of the district doesn’t support “same-sex marriage, the legalization of drugs, Sunday liquor sales and restricted prayer…” The fact that she had stretched the facts to a level of incredulity seemed to matter little, because as she was proving, intolerance is not just a Caucasian vice.

Most upsetting of all is the way she is willing to peddle her gratuitous anti-gay politics. Nothing is as demoralizing as African-American ministers and elected officials, some of whom once fought for a broad definition of civil rights, calling for a restriction of rights for another minority. The personal costs of this anti-gay sentiment are seen throughout the black community as gays hide in the shadows and live secret lives rather than be pushed to the fringes of society.


However, the most unconscionable comment by Councilwoman Mitchell was to come. “Most of the district’s constituents are of the Christian faith…” she said, accusing Sen. Cohen of trying to prevent ministers from saying, “in the name of Jesus,” apparently believing that she had cleverly disguised this bit of anti-Semitism as political rhetoric.

Not to be outdone, Commissioner Bolton works a cross into the stagecraft of his television advertisement, and manages somewhat awkwardly to work Christianity into the ad as one of his important qualities.

Although sharing the same religion as Jesus and having a better understanding of his message within the context of Jewish tradition, history and culture, Sen. Cohen has wisely ignored these ad hominem attacks. Sadly missing are the condemnations from African-American leaders and ministers who normally have no patience with bigotry and intolerance.

If it is true that government always abuses its power, it seems equally true that political power seems to corrupt common sense, not to mention the common decency, of some long-time politicians.

All of this reminds us of a panel organized at Rhodes College about 15 years ago. One of the panelists was the local organizer for a Saul Alinsky-style grassroots campaign, and he was asked a question about whether in light of demographic changes under way in Memphis, African-Americans could operate government and conduct politics in a more open, tolerant and inclusive way than the white establishment had done.

White People

The panelist answered: “Well, who do you think we learned government and politics from – white people? Now you want us to treat you better than you ever treated us.”

The “eye for an eye” answer stirred protests from African-Americans in the audience, and one said quickly:

It is not enough for us to say that it is o.k. for us to continue the hatred and prejudice because that’s what we learned from white people. It just continues a spiral to the bottom. We’ve called for openness, we’ve marched for fairness, we’ve protested against injustice. It’s not enough for us now to justify our behavior by saying it was done to us. We have to aspire to the best that we can be.
In this way, the Cohen candidacy is a test to see whether the panelist or the audience was right. Sadly, comments in recent days indicate that prejudice and intolerance are shaping up to be the real winners in the upcoming Congressional election.


mike said...

I think you are wrong to use words like "underground, residual and subterrainian" in describing racism (both black and white) in Memphis. Your own examples show that it is out there for anyone to see, unapologetic. I know I see both black ("white em-eff") and white ("n-word") actions and words around me all day, every day. Nothing shameful or hidden about it.

What is missing, interestingly, is accountability. Where are the black leaders speaking out clearly and forcefully against these words and attitudes? More people need to stand up and call out the folks who speak racism and anti-Semitism, make them defend their words in order to expose them.

It would also do for blacks to remember that the Civil Rights movement wouldn't have been half the success it was without the support of Jews. It was they who provided support in the form of presence at marches and demonstrations, and legal representation in the courts blacks were denied.

Look at photos of events from the era with someone who knows the faces. Lots of white faces and lots of Jewish names.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

I work for Lee Harris For Memphis, and our campaign is ashamed that anyone would make race an issue in this campaign.

Lee Harris has spoken out against this attitude. The campaign team's blog contains an editorial he wrote about the issue.

Lee has also written letters to the editor condemning these attitudes, but unfortunately that doesn't sell newspapers. His words against making race and religion part of a campaign were never printed.

Anonymous said...

"Where are the black leaders speaking out clearly and forcefully against these words and attitudes?"

I may be wrong but from what I can gather their silence shows they approve of these words and attitudes...

Anonymous said...

Let me first say that it is ridiculous to say that Steve can't represent the district because he is why, but I can certainly see why many blacks would be suspicious of his candidacy.

Here is another theory about why African-American leaders aren't speaking out. Maybe they remember the racist campaign that Steve ran in 1996. Maybe they remember him actively attempting to get Republicans to vote in a democratic primary in 1996. What was that about? It was clearly a racial play. He knew that white republicans would be more likely to vote for a white liberal like him, than a black moderate like Jr. Maybe they remember the harsh rhetoric that Steve used after he lost in 1996, where he called the entire black community racist, and said that the reason they didn't vote for him was because he was white (rather than the fact that they didn't trust him since he was courting republicans). Maybe they remmeber him fighting Bredesn's attempt to use some lottery money on headstart which actually helps black kids, unlike the lottery. Maybe black leaders are just a little suspicous about the fact that the only time he seems to run for higher office is when there happens to be when there are a number of African-Americans in the race and he can be the one white guy. Maybe they believe that Steve Cohen should repudiate what he did in 1996?

Steve shouldn't spend years disrespecting a community and then wonder why they don't all run to his aid. He will start getting respect when he starts giving respect. What he has done so far has been insulting and his latest "I am going to join the Congressional Black Caucus" rant is just the latest manifestation. Call me when he runs an add that says "I was wrong to call all of you all racist". Then we can start talking about taking him seriously. Until then, everyone should slow down on all of the claims of Steve's victimization. He brough this on himself.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree somewhat with what the last poster said. I work with a lot of African Americans and I asked them about Cohen a year ago. I was surprised how much they disliked him and it wasn't because of his votes or support for policies. It was because they thought he was racist and arogant. What he said and the way he behaved after the 1996 campaign continues to haunt him today. I voted for Cohen. I recognize he's a fighter and will vote in a way I think is correct, but Cohen can be a dick sometimes.

Anonymous said...

So, are you saying that most blacks supported the inexperienced, green Harold Ford Jr. in 1996 against the experienced Steve Cohen because they thought he was the best candidate? I rather think they supported Ford because of two things: he was black, and his name was "Ford." And that makes Cohen racist??

The reason so many black leaders have failed to speak out is the fact that they don't want to lose their power.

Anonymous said...

First of all I never said Steve was a racist, but your rush to jump to that conclusion is part of the hysteria that has overtaken this campaign. You refuse to deal with how Steve's actions in 1996, has a tremendouse bearing on how he is perceived in the black community...and instead want to just cry racism.

The truth is that we will never know whether blacks would have supported Steve in '96, because he never gave blacks a chance to vote for him. He kicked off his campaign by announcing to the CA that he would attemot to get Republicans to vote for him in the Democratic primary, which is a death knell for any Democrat trying to get black votes....irrespective of color. If you remember the race in its entirety you also realize that there was another black candidate, who had more experience than Steve, but black voters rejected him as well, in favor of Jr. He only got 10% of the vote. Folks felt comfortable with Jr, because he'd learned the ways of Washington at his father's knee....period, and there was a perception that he understood Washington because it has been his entire life. Nothing racial about it. Steve made it racial by soliciting Republican votes instead of making his case to black voters. Steve made it racial by calling an entire group in a city racist. What is ironic is that he now wants everyone in the city to apologize to him, but he has yet to apologize for his own outrageous conduct which triggered this backlash. It is shameful what he did then, and it is shameful how he is trying to rewrite history. It is also shameful that not even this blog, which is one that I have admired for its general tendency to go beyond the rhetoric and dig deeper on many issues, is willing to broach the subject of how Steve's past behaviour contributes to the animosity.

One quesiton for you. Are you saying that by electing Steve then black leaders will lose power? I certainly hope not, because according to Steve black leadership won't lose anything with him. According to Steve voting for him is like voting for a black woman.

Smart City Consulting said...

One big difference between 1996 and now is that once Senator Cohen lost his cool and made some ill-tempered comments, he did what's missing these days from people who speak religion and racism (to borrow Mike's fine phrase) talking about him. He admitted he was wrong and he apologized.

Reviewing available information and media coverage about that earlier campaign, we're unable to find anything that indicates that Sen. Cohen was recruiting white Republicans to vote for him.

Smart City Consulting said...

Thanks to Lee Harris for taking the high road and showing leadership in objecting to racially and religiously motivated campaign rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Smart City, I assume your search did not include a search of the CA, because here are just a few pieces of proof I was able to find in about 5 minutes about Steve's courting of Republicans.

From August 1st 1996 CA article entitled " Crossover vote could be key in 9th District"

"The Democratic race in the Ninth Congressional District appears to have come down to state Sen. Steve Cohen and Harold Ford Jr., eldest son of the congressman. All indications are that Republican voters, courted by both Cohen and state Rep. Rufus Jones, may play a key role in the Democratic vote

Here is David Waters on August 2, 1996 in CA

"Cohen, 47, had courted and counted on a massive Republican crossover vote to give him a chance to defeat the Ford machine. He got it, though not enough to offset the Ford family's strong traditional support among African-
American Democrats."

What I cannot find, is any proof of Steve apologizing. In fact a search of "Steve Cohen" and the word "apologize" only turns up instances of him saying that somebody needs to apologize to him. I am sure you guys at Smart City will be able to easily find some evidence of his apology, because black folks certainly never heard it...and since we know how he courts the camera, if he wanted us to hear it, we certainly would have.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: You need to conduct another search of the CA files. Cohen apologized to the paper's political columnist and on television. Back to our question, who's going to apologize to him?

Even if you believe that he did all the bad things that you think, how do any of us excuse racial and religious bigotry?

By the way, did you find any quote by Sen. Cohen or any member of his campaign staff saying they were courting crossover vote. And do people hold the same animosity toward Rufus Jones?

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: Great point about the Jewish leadership to the Civil Rights Movedment. In some of those early years, it was Jewish supporters who provided a great deal of the financial and intellectual support for equal rights.

Anonymous said...

Smart City you are reaching for straws. You can't come up with one shred of evidence that Steve ever apologized. Not one. If he had, it would be in the record, but it is not. As for Rufus, I think the fact that he has not held an office, or even considered running for office, since that decision indicates that he paid a price and that black voters held it against him.

I never said that racial bigotry was accetpable. In fact, if you read my first post, I explicit chastise folks who think that he should not represent the area because he is white. All I did, was point out the hypocrisy of you and his supporters who are now taking revisionist history to new heights, by acting like Steve Cohen is Goodman or Schwerner. He is not. In 1996 he was just your average everyday race baiter, and to now cry racism (without acknowledging how his own history plays into the animosity) is complete bs.

As for Jews and blacks working together, it is absolutely true that there is a history of it. That history does not mean that every Jew in America gets a pass from black folks when they play the race card. Steve showed black folks what he thought of them in 1996, when he used blatant racism in an effort to win an election. What is ironic is that you don't even attempt to dispute that fact, instead you simply call him a victim.

It is like James Earl Ray being upset because he walked through South Memphis and black folks jeered him and he complained of racism. Hell his history has something to do with their reaction. (Though let me please note that I am not comparing Steve to Ray. I am just trying to make a point to prove the absurdity of your argument.)

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: We'll volunteer to give you some research lessons. The following is from the Commercial Appeal and there was more on television:

"With more than a week's distance between himself and the election, Cohen has second thoughts and is reshaping his comments. He now says he was wrong, that he shouldn't have said African-American voters won't vote for a white candidate, regardless of the record. ''It was an impolitic statement on my part,'' said Cohen.

Yet Cohen said his reaction came not from the results of the congressional race, but mostly from the results of his race for the state Senate. Cohen, a state senator for 14 years, beat his opponent, Tommie Edwards, 2-to-1. Yet Cohen said only one in four African-American voters cast votes for him over Edwards.

''What got me on election night was that I was running against someone with no record of public service and helping people. When I found out I got only one of every four votes cast for state senator in predominantly African-American precincts, that's when I realized race is such an overwhelming element in Memphis,'' he said.

''I appreciate that there were a lot of black Memphians who voted for me for the Senate who didn't vote for me for Congress,'' said Cohen. ''But three times as many voted for an unqualified candidate with no record who doesn't live in the district. That's a real telling story about racial voting in Memphis.''

Cohen's response is an attempt for this Midtown politician to make amends. But the truth is, Cohen should have known better.

-- -- --

COHEN'S LEGISLATIVE colleague and congressional opponent, Rep. Rufus Jones, also lost to Ford Jr. Jones served as a state representative for 16 years. Despite his support from Mayor W.W. Herenton, Jones came in third in the six-man race, getting barely 5 percent of the total vote. For those who haven't noticed, Jones is an African-American.

Jones was surprised he lost the race by such a wide margin.

''When you live in your own election cocoon, you really think you're going to win,'' said Jones. ''My whole campaign organization was surprised at the results. But there's no bitterness. It was an educational experience. Most folks benefit from an education.''

Does he believe that racism dominated this campaign?

''I think the day Cohen got in the race, then race became a factor,'' said Jones. ''To my surprise, Cohen escalated the whole racial context during the campaign and during the later stages. This was something the Ford camp responded to.

''In their response, the whole community just divided down racial lines. Black folk went with Ford and white folk went with Cohen. Campaigning in the middle that was geared toward both communities just lost out.''

Was Cohen right when he said that a white candidate with a record of public service can't win against an African-American candidate with lesser experience?

''If you had asked me that question several days before the election, I would have disagreed strongly,'' said Jones. ''But since you asked me that today, I'll only say I have to think about it.''

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Now it's your turn. Where's the facts to support your charge of blatant racism?