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.
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.
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.
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.