Politics in Black and White



by Edward Cone
News & Record

Was Michael King able to manipulate the Greensboro City Council because he was black? Or was he more vulnerable because he was black? Or did race somehow make him both powerful and vulnerable at the same time?

The rise and fall of Reverend King, and questions about the oversight of his City-funded, non-profit homebuilder, Project Homestead, are reminders that race remains very much a part of local politics.  

We’ve come a long way since Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of judging people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. Overt racism, while hardly extinct, continues its generations-long retreat to the cultural margins. Yet it is still hard to discuss an instance of a black man who may have used the color of his skin to deflect attention from the content of his character.

Michael King seems to have enjoyed virtual ownership over public money for several years. He derived that power from many things, including his own talent and presence, and the good works he did with at least some of the money he received. He also leveraged the muscle of a well-organized political action committee focused on black voters, as well as membership in the NAACP and the Pulpit Forum. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but some City Council members want to pretend that King’s political power as a black leader had nothing to do with his free ride on the taxpayer dime.

It is the job of the Council, and of the press, to figure out how King got away with the things he is alleged to have gotten away with for so long. That means looking hard at the way race can shape public issues, and that can be a very scary thing to do.

This difficulty goes well beyond local politics. Most of us are nervous about being called racists for raising certain questions, or giving aid and comfort to the actual racists out there. The lack of grace with which local politicians sometimes address these issues (that’s you, Billy Yow) doesn’t make things any easier. But as we move further into the post-Civil Rights era, the hard questions must be considered.

Take affirmative action. If you believe, as I do, that affirmative action programs are a reasonable way to redress a lack of access to opportunity for minorities, then you have to be willing at some point to discuss the end of affirmative action programs; if they work, then sooner or later they will reach the point where their negative impact outweighs their merits. But it’s hard to talk about sunsetting affirmative action without having people look at you funny.

Or consider the way the press treats Al Sharpton, who (as noted by Jerry Bledsoe in a recent Rhinoceros Times article) has a well-documented history as a race-baiter, and whose anti-Semitic rhetoric has helped spark deadly violence. It’s hard to imagine City officials and the local media welcoming a white politician with similar credentials, without at least some introspection and comment, yet Sharpton’s recent award from the Civil Rights Museum’s parent organization drew only applause.

None of which is to argue that African-Americans in general enjoy some sort of privileged status in our culture, government, or economy. The opposite is still far too often true. And black men, including Michael King, die young in disproportionate numbers.  But giving a pass to a handful of black leaders is easier than addressing the structural problems we face as a society, and if those leaders are the only people willing to talk about those problems in the first place, then we all get to pretend we’re dealing with the big issues without actually doing much heavy lifting.

Those of us – and I include myself – who are vigilant about race and politics need to pay attention to black, white, and shades of gray. The politicians and the press missed a big part of the story on Michael King and his now-bankrupt organization, in part, perhaps, because of King’s race. Next time – and there will be a next time – closer attention must be paid.

Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, efcone@mindspring.com) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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