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In recent years, a new generation of African-American leaders won elections — for mayor, governor and president — on a platform that implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) rejects “black politics” or “black issues.” But those incumbents ignore the role of race in American politics at their own risk. We examine the legacy of D.C.’s first “post-racial” mayor, and explore how race continues to influence local and national polls.
- Daryl Harris Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, Howard University; author, "The High Tide of Pragmatic Black Politics: Mayor Anthony Williams and the Suppression of Black Interests," in "Democratic Destiny and the District of Columbia: Federal Politics and Public Policy" (Walters, R & Travis, TM, eds.) (Lexington)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the "Green Book," the travel guide that African-Americans use for road trips during segregation to avoid having doors slammed in their faces. And we take a look at the life of Ron Walters, the long-time professor and political scientist who died this past Friday, but first, the promise and the peril of post-racial politics. Race has always been a potent force in America, but over the last decade, a new group of black leaders swept into office, playing down their racial identity.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor much of its history, the District of Columbia was a place leaders openly, sometimes cynically, talk of divisions between black and white. But since 1998, the District has elected mayors running as pragmatic service-oriented candidates who happened to be black, not as black candidates Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. This political season race and race-coated appeals continue to influence local elections, and candidates ignore it at their own peril.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the history of all of this in District of Columbia politics is Daryl Harris. He is a professor and chair of the department of political science at Howard University. He's the author of "The High Tide of Pragmatic Black Politics: Mayor Anthony Williams and the Suppression of Black Interests" and essay in the new anthology "Democratic Destiny and the District of Columbia: Federal Politics and Public Policy." Daryl Harris, thank you very much for joining us.
PROF. DARYL HARRISThank you.
NNAMDIEven though we will be discussing Ron Walters later in this show, the late professor, suffice it to say that Ron Walters should have been on this show today because Dr. Walters was the co-editor, along with Toni-Michelle Travis, of the book "Democratic Destiny and the District of Columbia," in which we found the essay by Daryl Harris on Anthony Williams and black interests. So in a way, Ron Walters is here today in spirit.
NNAMDII'm glad you could join us. Daryl Harris, four years ago, Adrian Fenty swept the Democratic primary for D.C. mayor, winning every ward of the city, black and white, with a campaign message focused on bread-and-butter issues. It was a historic victory, but it probably would not have even been possible without the legacy of his predecessor, Anthony Williams. In your essay, you present Williams as a kind of watershed for local politics in both a good and a bad way. Remind our audience of what was going on in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s when Anthony Williams, so to speak, arrived on the scene.
HARRISWell, here in the city, the pretext and subtext was the fiscal crises the city was experiencing at the time, set the stage for Congress to intervene, put in place the control board with the policy in the mid-1990s, effectively stripping then-mayor Barry of his powers, setting the stage for what I call pragmatic style local leadership. And it's important, Kojo, to point out that this style of leadership is not new. In fact, if we go back to the late 1980s across the country, the kind of candidate -- a Williams-type of candidate and later Fenty -- was exhibited throughout the country in large cities. And these are black candidates aspiring to be elected mayors of cities, and part of the appeal is to run post-racial or de-racial style campaigns, meaning deemphasizing race, race consciousness, identity, as political variables.
NNAMDIYou describe them in your essay, in part, as kind of black technocrats, correct?
NNAMDIPrimary Day here in the District of Columbia is tomorrow. It obviously would be a referendum, in a part, on the leadership style of Mayor Adrian Fenty. But can you also argue it's a referendum on Anthony Williams, his style of leadership, and a referendum on black technocratic leaders in general?
HARRISCertainly. I -- yes, I would make that argument. And this is not to say that one is making a case for leadership that doesn't address real problems that cities have. But importantly, black voters are not -- well, I should say black voters are intelligent. And black voters recognize when their interests are not being represented in terms of the public policy initiatives of the city government. And so it's very clear if you look at Fenty, for example. And you can go back to Williams, who I talk about in my essay. Fenty comes in, and he appoints high-level positions, practically all of the high-level positions are non-blacks -- a clear signal to African Americans that their interests are not high on the agenda. And it's important, I think, if we think of -- if I can call Ron Walter's name here. He always talks about black interests. And we have to make the point that when we say black interests, we don't mean the education, health care, crime and so forth on that...
NNAMDIWhat are black interests in today's contemporary political about?
HARRISThis is the point. Black interests mean that black people experience these issues differently than other groups of people. So there's an urgency to education. There's an urgency to disproportionate percentages of blacks being incarcerated. There's an urgency to the housing crisis. This is what we mean by black interests. Again, not to say that other groups don't value these issues, but to say that special attention and targeted types of policy approaches need to be aimed at addressing these concerns.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, how do you define black interests? You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Our guest is Daryl Harris. He's professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University and author of the essay "The High Tide of Pragmatic Black Politics: Mayor Anthony Williams and the Suppression of Black Interests." That's an essay in the new anthology "Democratic Destiny and the District of Columbia: Federal Politics and Public Policy." Again, the number, 800-433-8850. Do you think we have reached an era of post-racial politics, and if so, why? Professor Harris talk a little bit about why this is different if you're looking at the national scene versus if you're looking at the local scene, and in particular, at mayors.
HARRISWhat I think -- there's a point I want to make before as part of the answer...
HARRIS...in continuing to make the case about the -- by what we mean by black, and by extension, black interests. Black is a metaphor. It's a metaphor for the history and the culture and the experience of a people. And out of that experience evolves values, concepts, ideas. And so when we say -- when we talk about black leadership, whether it's at the local level or even the national level, what we have in mind is leadership that reflects those values, ideas and concepts. So there's a value orientation as a first point.
HARRISA second point is interest articulation. So if one were to make the observation about a particular candidate -- Fenty, for example -- one could use these elements, value orientation. Whose values do you represent? Whose ideas do you represent? And if one could pinpoint those values, those interests, with a particular group of people, one probably, predictably, can make the observation that the interest that that candidate will promote will reflect those values. So...
NNAMDIWell, let me make it more difficult. Barack Obama -- if you were to look at it at the national level, Barack Obama -- and let me throw in a couple of other names. Maybe Harold Ford Jr., who's running for the Senate in New York and who ran in the state of South Carolina -- in the state of Tennessee. Congressman Artur Davis, who ran for governor in Alabama, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts...
HARRISYeah, I see were you're going.
NNAMDIYes, yes, yes, yes.
HARRISWell, I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but one could still make those kinds of observations and respectfully be critical of our leadership. I mean, the end of black electoral politics is to get one's interest represented. It's not enough to have symbolic representation -- phenol type, one's skin color. You'd be satisfied with that. It's about getting individuals in positions of authority where they can help facilitate the interests of a community being represented.
HARRISSo all the euphoria surrounding Barack Obama is to be expected, to be celebrated, but at some point, the community will begin to raise questions about, well, what about our concerns? What about our interests? What about the urgency that we are experiencing in our communities? Who's going to address these? If we can't expect black-elected leadership to do these things, who can we expect to do these things?
NNAMDIIs there a distinction to be made between the national level and the local level because Barack Obama is, in the final analysis, the president of a majority white country, Adrian Fenty is the mayor of a majority black city?
HARRISWell, yes. One could make that observation. One could not conceivably expect Barack Obama to be a race politician. He would not have been elected were that to be the case, but this is classic deracialization. It's also applicable at the local level. Now, one might argue that Fenty does not have to be a deracial-style candidate, but he chooses to be so. This is a -- this type of local-elected leadership, particularly at the mayoral level, is a commentary as I argue in my chapter, is a commentary on moving away from the transformative-style leadership that we saw coming out of the 1960s and the 1970s. Mayor Barry represents that type of leadership. The first wave of black-elected mayors represented that type of leadership. Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., Carl Stokes, Cleveland, and there's a whole host of them representing big cities.
NNAMDIHarold Washington in Chicago.
HARRISHarold Washington, yes, of Chicago. Coming into the late 1980s and continuing into the present, we had this new style -- Cory Booker, Newark, N.J.
NNAMDIIn Newark, N.J.
HARRISAnthony Williams, Washington, D.C. You mentioned down in Mississippi, Artur...
HARRISArtur Davis. The governor of -- Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. This style of leadership projects a position, a posture that is distance from the black community. And as an analyst, we have to raise questions about what does this mean substantively, not in terms of what they look like, but what kind of substance do they represent with respect to the interest of the community?
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones, starting with Leila in Washington, D.C. Leila, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEILAHi, just real quick. I'm a little confused when the speaker talks about urgency. You know, I think I understand that certain segments of the population would be very focused on different lifestyle issues. So would crime. That's a huge issue in the African-American community. So that would need maybe two sets of arguments with the white versus the black on how things are allocated. But in D.C. right now, I see this huge discussion about education, and urgency is in everybody's mind and so I -- that it's become so divisive. And I don't under -- I just -- I don't understand that. And then I also don't really get this business of a transformative elected official versus a pragmatic because...
NNAMDIOkay. Good, you've raised two excellent issues there. And in the interest of time, allow me to have Daryl Harris respond. I guess Leila would say in terms of urgency, we need an urgent change in our public schools, and that's what it seemed that we were getting. Why would African-Americans object to that?
HARRISWell, this is the argument I'm making. If we have critical concerns in the community, then what is required in terms of public policy is targeted attention on those issues. That's what we mean by the urgency of a particular issue, that it could be a range of issues. Minus addressing those issues, then we're left with, of course, them not being satisfied.
NNAMDIThe Fenty administration would argue that with Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, it has been addressing the urgency of those issues, that the complaint that was made in the past that we had as schools chancellor or schools superintendents like Clifford Janey, a good man with a good reputation with good policies, was that he was moving too slowly.
HARRISYeah, well, I don't -- Well, certainly. I think one of the concerns with the chancellor is the issue of insensitivity. And I think if on that point, Chancellor Rhee and the mayor were more sensitive to what the people -- or they would just listen to the people, maybe you wouldn't have as much criticism aimed at what she's doing on that point so...
NNAMDIAnd the other issue that Leila raises has to do with first the urgency and then the transformative nature of black leadership. You identified Richard Hatcher. I said Harold Washington, Marion Barry and others. The difference between the transformative leader and the technocrat leader is one you addressed in the issue. I'm wondering if there can be points in between where the two actually meet.
HARRISCertainly they do. There's no way a mayor of a big city can escape identifying what developmental style policy approach is. So whether one is a transformative style mayor or managerial or technocrat style mayor, there is no avoiding developmental issues.
NNAMDIYeah, 'cause you point out in your article that Marion Barry, also as mayor, had to deal with developers...
NNAMDI...and I'm thinking today that a Corey Booker or an Adrian Fenty are saying we have to expand the tax base.
NNAMDIAnd when we have to expand the tax base so we can pay our bills so that we can provide services, we need, oh, maybe wealthier residents in the city, maybe more development in the city. That means gentrification, which in our racially charged environment invariably means bringing more white people into the city. How does a mayor, who is a transformative mayor, deal with that without a great deal of controversy?
HARRISSuch a mayor can't.
HARRISIn a real sense, all mayors are stuck because of the location of cities and the hierarchy of American federalism. And the fact that city mayors and city governments can't control who comes, that is businesses that is located in their cities -- all cities want to attract viable businesses, developmental type activities to their cities. It means higher tax base and so forth. For mayors that -- and this happened to the first wave of transformative style leaders -- transformative meaning redistributive type policy approaches, wanting to do something about those at the low end of the socioeconomic ladder. But soon as those mayors move in that direction, they hear whispers and sometimes loud shouts from developers saying no, no, no. If you do that, we'll go elsewhere. We'll take our business elsewhere. So whether one is a transformative style leader or a technocrat -- which they're really cut from the developmental mold -- they'll do pretty much anything developers want. They're both in the same place. They both have to, to a large extent, have to appease the developers, the (word?) .
NNAMDIIs it a possible that what we are seeing -- because I do have to move on -- is a paradigm shift between what you characterize as the transformative leaders and the technocratic leaders or between the transformative leaders or whatever is, in the future? And the technocratic leaders are the ones who are attempting to bridge the gap, so to speak, and therefore they are the ones who are likely to face the greatest peril.
HARRISWell, that's a difficult question, but I probably would come down on the side of that question whether or not the new style leadership will take us in a direction where black interest will be satisfactorily attended to. Washington D.C. is probably a good example with the gentrification type policies. What's happening to the blacks who live in this town, D.C. at some point in the near future will probably no longer be a majority black city. I'm not saying it should be. I'm just making the argument that -- especially those at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder are, and they have made these points that are being pushed out.
NNAMDIIs this an exciting time for you as a political scientist?
HARRISFor me, yes.
NNAMDIBeing able to observe this...
NNAMDIIt's one of the reasons why we will miss Ron Walters so much because he was on the scene observing this. You can find articles on the stellar career of Ron Walters and his work in recent editions of the newspapers, The Washington Post and others. He also did a column for The Washington Informer newspaper. Daryl Harris, thank you very much for joining us to discuss post-racial politics. I'll ask you to stay with us as we discuss the life and career of Dr. Ronald Walters.
HARRISYeah, thank you.
NNAMDII've always considered Ron Walters a friend. I've known him for about 40 years. We both worked at Howard University for three decades, met and talked a lot. And I've interviewed him dozens of times on radio and on television. I don't think I've ever heard him raise his voice or be dismissive of anyone. Most importantly, even as a so-called public intellectual -- a term of which I am not fond -- he did what academics are supposed to do: study, research, publish. The reason he was a go-to guy for so many of us in media is because he did not shoot from the hip, expressing opinions simply to be saying something. He wasn't glib. He was thoughtful, chose his words carefully and understood nuance as when he spoke to my colleague, Diane Rehm, in 2005 about the meaning of freedom.
MR. RON WALTERSI think, you know, we hear a lot today about freedom and liberty and so forth. And freedom and liberty to a group that has really sort of dominant control and power over American political institution and social life mean something relatively different because their rights are relatively secure. If you belong to a group where your rights are not secure, then freedom means really attaining those rights. It means attaining a full citizenship, becoming viable so that you can use those rights to achieve what other people have already achieved in American society.
NNAMDIThat was the quintessential Ron Walters. And while we miss his forceful yet gentle presence among us, joining us in studio is Julian Bond, civil rights activist. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, former legislator in the State of Georgia, former presidential candidate, former chairman of the board of the NAACP and now a professor with American University. And we'll be talking to him later about his acting career that seems to be getting underway here. Julian Bond, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. JULIAN BONDThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIt's good to see you. What is your own memory of Ron Walters, both as activist and as intellectual?
BONDWell, as both those things, I've tried to think of specific occasions where I've been in a room with him and a group of other people, most of whom would be defined as politicians. And Ron would speak, and a hush would fall, and without raising his voice, without shouting or screaming or yelling, he'd say something and summarize what most people were thinking but no one had said, either because they couldn't articulate as well as he could or for some other reason. And he spoke and quiet reined and people said, oh, yeah, sure, that's right. That's my memory of Ron Walters.
NNAMDIAs a politician yourself, you served for a long time in the Georgia State legislator. You ran for office on several occasions. How difficult is it to keep track of all of the political and historical, political -- in other words, how necessary is it for somebody like a Julian Bond, or for that matter a Barack Obama, to have somebody like a Ron Walters around?
BONDOh, it's absolutely necessary, you know. I was so engaged in the discussion you were having before...
NNAMDII know that's...
BOND...I came on in because all the figures that you were discussing are people I know or knew or worked with in some capacity or other. And you've got to have somebody who's tracking this, who's looking at it with a steadied eye, who can look at it without being prejudiced in favor or against a candidate, ask the candidate why a candidate -- be it Mayor Jones or Mayor Smith or something -- and Ron was that person. He could look at the situation, and because he knew the history, because he knew the efforts, he knew what had been done and what was intended to be done. He was just a marvelous, marvelous guy, somebody we're going to miss a tremendous amount in the years ahead.
NNAMDIDefinitely. He was also the faculty advisor at Howard University to one Daryl Harris. Is that correct?
HARRISYes. I -- so many memories, just as Julian Bond is making the point. There were so many occasions where I'm sitting in his office, and he always pushes the right buttons. But he was the quintessential example of what we wanted as students of his, a towering exemplar of good character, humility, but scholarship. He really laid the road map at Howard University's department of political science and what black Politics is all about. Black Politics with an uppercase P, meaning the field of study or disciplinary type of initiatives and not simply black politics with the lowercase p, meaning the broad range of black political thought and behavior, which is what the discipline would study. In a sense, Howard -- obviously Howard, in my mind, is the place where that should happen because it's Howard University. And Ron Walters was the right person for that.
NNAMDIHe went to the University of Maryland for a while. I read yesterday -- did not realize that he was supposed to be coming back to Howard.
HARRISYes. Actually, I believe the paperwork was on its way through the administrative offices. It may have been finally inked, but, of course, he became ill right before classes started. So we never really got to have him physically back at the university. I should also point out that he was working on a number of projects, a book on Barack Obama as well as -- Rutledge Press had put together a proposal for him to do an anthology on black leadership. And so he was in the process of doing that as well.
NNAMDIYou know, Julian, all academics have to try to figure out what role they're going to play in society...
NNAMDI...at large. And the little known fact of Ron Walters leading a 1958 sit-in in Wichita, Kan. at a restaurant came up in his obituary recently. This was before you guys had started (unintelligible) yourself.
BONDOh, sure it was before the -- people date the sit-ins from March -- February 1, 1960 in Greensboro and A&T, but they really began far before that, even began before Ron Walters did it in Oklahoma.
NNAMDITell us about that.
BONDWell, the NAACP here in D.C. had had sit-ins in the '40s, and there were sit-ins in the -- in Chicago earlier than that or contemporaneously with that. It's hard to say what the first sit-in was, but surely Ron Walters was a pioneer in this technique and did it through the NAACP. You know, I don't think we appreciate the single role the NAACP may -- had in starting all these movements, some which had never followed through or carried out or had a major role after initiating them. But it's just -- you know, you just think how much you're going to miss this guy. To think, to have it be an early sit-in-er (sic) and then become this academic, and to be at both this historically black college, the capstone of black higher education, it's harder for (word?) men to say that.
BONDAnd to, you know, go to Maryland where he also had -- you know, you might argue even a wider reach because of them, just the nature of the school and what it was. And so I didn't understand he was going back to Howard...
BOND...but I'm glad to hear that.
NNAMDIYes. He was indeed going back to Howard. And for those of you who think that Jesse Jackson's 1984 candidacy as president of the United States was historic, you should know that it probably could not have accomplished all that it did were Ron Walters not his lead counsel during that 1984 campaign. And it expanded in the 1988 campaign, but in the 1984 campaign, a lot of it was Ron Walters.
HARRISKojo, I think it's important also to point out the range, the intellectual range that Dr. Walters had with respect to black political thought and behavior. He did pan-Africanism.
NNAMDIYep. That's where I met him.
HARRISHe did black electoral politics. He did a book, a recent book on reparations -- a major book on reparations -- comparative analysis of South Africa and the United States. He did work on nationalism and...
NNAMDIIn the Middle East, he was an advocate of a...
NNAMDI…two-state solution before a lot of people were in the Middle East. Well, I guess you'll just have to go out and do what Ron Walters would've wanted you to do.
BOND(unintelligible) you to follow in his footsteps.
NNAMDIExactly right, Darryl Harris. Darryl Harris, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIA lot of very, very big shoes to fill, and for those of you who don't know more about Dr. Ron Walters, you can go out and do some reading yourself online or in The Washington Post or any place else. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will discuss "The Green Book," which African-American travelers used during segregation to prevent doors from being slammed in their faces. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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