Open Thread: Racial Politics

by Latoya Peterson

I’ve learned quite a bit from this thread, but now, I have a question.

Some people seem to be very angry with Barack Obama for not publicly advocating for black interests.

(For this discussion, we will lay aside the concept of a black agenda for politics and assume that we are talking specifically about policy issues that deal with something that disproportionately affects the black community.)

When people claim they want a politician who looks out for their community, what are they asking for? Who would be a good example of this?

Now readers, someone quickly comes to my mind, but I do not think that is what you meant. Because when I think of a black politician who looked out for his constituency, I think of…

Marion Barry.

A film about Barry, called Mayor for Life, neatly sums up the situation in two paragraphs:

Many people remember Marion Barry as the philandering drug-addled mayor of the nation’s capital, the one who famously uttered the phrase “bitch set me up” during his arrest in a 1990 FBI sting operation. He’s the poster boy for corruption, a pariah. Yet to others, Marion Barry is a folk hero. Hailed as a civil rights champion and defender of the poor, his soaring achievements, catastrophic failures and phoenix-like rebirths have made him a symbol of mythic indestructibility.

From the cotton fields to the corridors of power, Barry has weathered drug and alcohol addiction, cancer, 4 marriages, jail time and international humiliation to dominate Washington D.C. city politics for over 40 years. Today, to the disgust of some and the delight of others, Barry is once again in the political limelight. Who is Marion Barry, really? A hero? A scoundrel? Why is he such a polarizing force? And why do people still vote for him? For the first time, Mayor for Life reveals the complete unforgettable story.

Which is true. As a Marylander, Barry was not my mayor. And I remember all the “bitch set me up!” jokes that went around during the 90s.

However, a lot of people were loath to say anything bad about Marion Barry, even after the drug bust. People in my family, DC elders, older cousins of friends – they all knew a different Marion Barry.

Marion Barry who helped connect people with good jobs, often in government, to provide them with financial stability.

Marion Barry was often among the people and provided assistance to senior citizens and other people in need.

Marion Barry was generally very accessible to his constituency, to the point where you could orchestrate a formal or an informal meeting with Barry with relative ease. (Unless he didn’t want to see you.)

People were also loyal to Barry because of what he did for DC. According to a CNN report:

During his 12-year tenure, Barry helped to rejuvenate the city’s downtown area, sparking a construction boom. His administration also balanced the city’s budget. One of Barry’s distinctive initiatives was his District Youths Employment Act of 1979. The legislation guaranteed a summer job to all city youths who wanted one, regardless of their economic status.

Marion Barry did many things. But there’s a reason he kept winning the majority of the vote in DC and why – even with the benefit of hindsight – people still love Marion Barry.

But Barry is a very charged example and not at all representative of black politicians in America. He’s just the one I remember as inspiring a lot of loyalty in the people he served.

So I open the floor – readers, what black officials currently working in politics do a wonderful job advocating for the needs of their constituents? Nominations of people are great, but I am really interested to hear from people in close proximity to a district or were directly served by the elected official. Who has been able to be politically successful while advocating for the needs of the black community? (Or, any other marginalized community, for those of you who can think of other examples?)

As an aside: Albert Wynn also had a similar dynamic going. That was one of the reasons that I watched the Donna Edwards challenge unfold with interest. A lot of the support for Donna Edwards came from outside of Maryland. Why? Because politics is largely based on favors. And Wynn did a lot of favors. Not as many as Barry, mind you, or else he would still be in office. But sometimes, all it takes to get a vote is hosting a job fair. Or helping someone get a congressional internship. Or sponsoring a program to take high school kids to Congress. (Something I attended twice. I still have the signed certificates from Wynn and his happy “I care about YOU!” pamphlet somewhere.)