Column: Undercurrents: Those Who Get Caught in the Back Wash of Past Discrimination

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday October 19, 2007

As the nation slowly—in some cases, very slowly, and almost always too slowly—does away with various practices of bias and discrimination in American life, we have begun to develop the phenomenon where members of a group which historically discriminated get extra props for ceasing the doing of something that never should have been done in the first place, while members of the group historically discriminated against get criticism no matter which way they turn. Call it a new twist on the old double standard. 

Consider the issue of single parenting, which has long been the almost exclusive province of women. 

If a man, not living in the same house as his child, says that he talks with the child by phone every week, has the child visit him over periodic weekends, remembers every birthday, and regularly sends money for support, it is generally considered that the man is doing right by his child, and doing his duty. 

If, however, the man goes beyond that traditional role and raises his child on his own, as a single parent, he is widely praised and lionized as one who has done the unexpected, and has gone above and beyond. 

If a woman raises her child as a single mom, she may get sympathy now and then, but no extra credit, as this is what a woman is expected to do. On the other hand, the woman who has given up custody of her child to the child’s father, and who talks to the child on the phone, allows periodic visits, etc., etc., is most often referred to—behind her back, generally—with phrases like, “Why did she give him up?” and “I wonder what’s wrong?” 

To paraphrase my old minister, cross, in other words, but no crown for the old victims. 

We see aspects of that phenomenon—a standard wherein the victims of past prejudice must work harder to overcome that prejudice, with little acknowledgement of the dilemma or the price paid—at work this year amongst our presidential candidates. Unless and until Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected president, we will probably never know what she will actually do as commander in chief to advance the nation’s defense, since a woman politician seeking the presidency must ever and always vote and speak while mindful of the perception among many voters that a woman does not have the cojones (the pun most certainly intended) to give the order to send American troops to their deaths. 

As it is with women running seriously for the presidency, so it is with African-Americans. 

To win the presidency, a candidate, first and foremost, must maintain their political base. White candidates are able to choose, at will, pretty much whatever initial political base they desire and can on occasion, if they want, completely reverse themselves mid-stream and cross over to the opposite bank, with little apparent repercussion. Thus Robert Kennedy started off his political career as a staffmember and admirer of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy—the great anti-Communist zealot—but later altered his politics to become a liberal-progressive icon, the darling and presidential choice of people who thought McCarthy the devil incarnate. Ronald Reagan went in the opposite direction, beginning as a New Deal liberal but turning to anti-Communism in the McCarthy years, thence to become—well, we all know what Mr. Reagan became. 

But those are white politicians, whose political base has some flex to it. 

The political base of African-American politicians, on the other hand, is first and foremost considered to be the African-American voting community. Those black politicians who successfully satisfy that base—and run in districts that are largely African-American—can stay in office for years and years while “speaking truth to power,” in the new phrase, or regularly “pissing off the white folks,” in the way it used to be said and still is, on some street corners and in some barber and beauty shops. 

The problem comes for all African-American politicians comes if and when they decide to run for office in a district that is not majority-black and therefore, by necessity, requires development of a significant non-black constituency. To win a significant number of non-black votes, an African-American politician must prove, in some way, that he or she is not completely beholden to black interests, and if elected will work for the larger community benefit, even if that direction is sometimes at odds with black opinion. But for every non-black vote a black politician gains in such a fashion, there is a cooling of support within the African-American community and a corresponding loss of some portion of the black vote. Call it the speed-of-light phenomenon, which cannot be reached by objects of greater-than-light mass under normal circumstances because the faster you go, the more you weigh and, therefore, the more power you must generate to push your mass faster and, therefore, the more mass you must carry in order to generate that power, until you reach a point where you just can’t win. Many African-American politicians reach such a dead-end point of winning non-black support beyond which the loss of black support becomes so great that political victory cannot be reached, no matter what. 

That may have been the main reason Jesse Jackson stopped being a presidential candidate after 1988. Mr. Jackson won 3.5 million votes in the 1984 Democratic primaries (21 percent of the total vote) while winning five primaries. That year, he received 77 percent of the African-American vote, 5 percent of the white vote. Four years later, Mr. Jackson almost doubled his vote total to 6.9 million and more than doubled his primary victories to 11, while winning increasing his black vote total to 93 percent and his white vote total to 13 percent. But to win a greater share of the white vote in 1984, Mr. Jackson ran a “Rainbow Coalition” campaign rather than a strictly black-oriented campaign, and while black voters supported him the second time around in greater percentage than the first, the campaign lost much of its black fervor as it embraced a larger view. 

In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton thought he could solve the problem of appearing “too beholden” to black interests by creating his “Sista Souljah Moment,” picking a public fight with an African-American rapper by calling her a racist. Non-black voters were satisfied, and Mr. Clinton suffered no serious consequences within the African-American community. On the other hand, as the furor over the recent Bill Cosby remarks about African-American responsibility ought to indicate, an African-American politician making the same statement as Mr. Clinton would be pilloried in many sectors of the black community as a sellout and a race traitor and an apologist to the white folks, with that candidate’s African-American vote total dropping precipitously and dramatically as a result. 

And so we have the problems of Senator Barack Obama and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums in the current presidential campaign. 

Mr. Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, has chosen to live his life as an African-American, marrying an African-American woman and identifying himself with the African-American community and African-American causes. To win the presidency of the United States, however, he cannot run an African-American campaign and so, unlike the previous campaigns of, say, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Congressmember Shirley Chisholm, if you did not know Mr. Obama’s race, you could take his campaign platform and positions and identify them as a Democratic liberal-progressive candidate, not necessarily as an African-American candidate. I don’t say that as a bad thing. He is presenting himself as he is, in the way he best believes will win him the nomination and the presidency. 

But even though Mr. Obama is not running a black campaign—cannot, in fact, run such a campaign if he hopes to win—some African-Americans have taken the position that the chance to elect a black president is so important, given the history of African-Americans in particular and America in general, that African-American politicians must endorse Mr. Obama as an act of race solidarity, and call such politicians race traitors when they do not. 

Typical was an Oct. 1 posting on, a blog that regularly discusses African-American political issues (the blogger describes himself as a “black, 30-something, political junkie residing somewhere in the Carolinas,”, announced the Dellums-Clinton endorsement under the heading “Ron Dellums Sells Out.” And Zennie Abraham, Jr., an African-American Oakland resident who operates the Oakland Focus blog and writes for the Huffington Post, said of the Dellums-Clinton endorsement “Dellums apparently can’t bring himself to back a young black senator named Barack Obama. It’s funny with some older African Americans in Oakland. They’re so afraid of anyone black who can be in charge that they’d back someone white.” 

The latter is something of an odd charge to make about Mr. Dellums, who employed and sponsored, after all, the current congressional representative from Oakland (Barbara Lee), the currently legislative representative from Oakland (Sandré Swanson), and one of the two current Oakland members of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors (Keith Carson). But that is not the point, is it? 

One problem is that had Mr. Dellums endorsed Mr. Obama—something he seemed to be seriously considering earlier this year—the mayor would have caught the flak from the other side, from commentators who would have said that the endorsement came not because of legitimate political reasons, but only because both men were Black. 

Meanwhile, the political differences between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton—while magnified during the primary season—are actually so slight compared with their differences with the Republicans that given the choice of having their names, along with John Edwards, put in a bag and pulled out in a blind draw, almost every Democrat in this country would be tickled to death to have as the next president whoever’s name was drawn over the Republican nominee. That being said, white politicians are able to pick between endorsements the top three Democrats—Obama, Clinton, and Edwards—with some grumbling from the losing sides, but with little political fallout. Such it was with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who earlier this year endorsed Ms. Clinton. 

African-American politicians may seize that freedom when it comes to this presidential year, but only at some cost among a key component of their political base. Once more, the victims of past American discrimination are the main ones who continue to get caught in its backwash.