Conservatism, in and of itself, is certainly no vice. But pointing fingers at Jackson and Sharpton seems sublimely ironic if not hypocritical from men whose political existence is defined by their skin color and whose most extraordinary achievement is being on the wrong side of history. I'm not sure which possibility is worse: that these men do not realize they're being cynically used as beards for conservative racism or, worse, that they don't care as long as it politically elevates them.

There once was a girl named Tawana

who, having missed her curfew and fearing punishment from a violent step-dad, apparently rolled around in dirt and feces and alleged that she’d been beaten and raped. The Reverend All Sharpton, whom many then and now believe to be an opportunist, rushed to the girl’s defense, widening the schism between blacks sympathetic to the girl’s claims and whites who assumed, from the beginning, that the girl was lying. It was a perfect storm of seeming exploitation as the child seemed to exploit both her race and gender in an effort to avoid punishment and, finding herself in a national spotlight, either didn’t know how to un-ring that bell or possibly liked the attention. Tawana exploited Reverend Al and Reverend Jesse Jackson, both of whom had built careers in occasionally extreme, fast-food gerrymandering of Dr. King’s civil rights campaign. The cynic saw Tawana exploiting exploiters who’d built careers exploiting political and social injustice. There is a sunnier and more heroic perspective on Reverends Jackson and Sharpton that posits them as political activists with purer motives. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between, with the needle pointing slightly toward altruism. Without drinking the Kool-Aide, I suspect both Jackson and Sharpton are both men of integrity who passionately believe in the cause of social justice for all of us. I think they both got played in the Tawana thing, an occupational hazard for what they do. While tarnishing Reverend Jackson’s reputation somewhat, the Tawana Brawley case catapulted Reverend Al into the national spotlight, and his own amazing intellect and rhetorical powers did the rest, creating one of the most articulate and persuasive defenders of human dignity on the world stage today.

Public attention is an intoxicant. Once drunk with it, it is difficult to retire again from the spotlight. Since the dawn of time, I’d imagine, there have been men and women willing to exploit some advantage of gender or ethnicity to curry political favor or make a buck. Witness former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, whose insufferable, ego-driven mania was defended and even cheered by her largely black constituency even as McKinney devolved, before our eyes, into chronic narcissism. Her public appearances made her seem unreasonable and, ultimately, irrational as McKinney became, increasingly, an Oprah off the farm whom the media treated with relative kid gloves because of her race, gender and the wellspring of support she enjoyed within the black community. reset video

Your browser does not support inline frames or is currently configured not to display inline frames. Good will McKinney cashed in when her irrationality and self-absorption jumped the shark on March 29, 2006, when McKinney was stopped by a Capitol Police officer as she attempted to stroll around the long lines waiting for the magnetometer at the U.S. Capitol Building. McKinney had left her ID in her office, and the officer did not recognize her—a notion that seemed to astound McKinney, who was her own biggest fan. When the officer refused to allow her to pass, McKinney rolled her eyes and attempted to storm past him, at which point the officer grabbed her arm—an action McKinney later described as an assault. McKinney then, as she described, “defended” herself, slapping the officer, who then should have placed the Congresswoman under arrest. For what I can only assume are reasons of politics and race, the officer did not arrest McKinney, but the matter was referred to the District Attorney and Congressional ethics committee, with McKinney facing possible criminal charges if she did not apologize for assaulting the officer.

What followed was a weeks-long media circus with McKinney sopping up media attention like gravy, defending the indefensible as "racial profiling." Her utterly ridiculous campaign to avoid a simple apology revealed a troubling irrationality and pettiness to her character which, thankfully, got her booted out of Congress in the next election. Had she not been a woman, not been black, there’d have been no issue. Frankly, there’d have been no story. Despite her lame protests to the contrary, McKinney seemed to relish the attention on her, blacks rallying to her defense. She became the new, Bergdorf Goodman Tawana Brawley, backed into a corner by her own childishness and exploiting the very people she portended to speak for.

McKinney’s media circus also revealed how ultimately gullible black America is, as perhaps millions of blacks, across the country, backed her play at least initially. It is our most troubling attribute, our willingness to jump to the defense of anyone black without examining the evidence, without asking questions. Church ladies, whom McKinney exemplified, rallied to her defense. McKinney ultimately issued a half-hearted, selfish, meandering statement which might be considered an apology if you were really high on something. The cop, whose entire life and career had now been ruined by the media circus, never pressed charges and let the whole matter drop.

In the meantime, the desperate and tragic case of two little boys, Purvis Parker and Quadrevion Henning, who’d gone to play basketball and never came home, was pushed from the national headlines by McKinney’s clown act. You see, national media only allots so much space for “black” news, and McKinney’s pompous grandstanding was a much sexier lead story than the agony of waiting in Milwaukee. Representative McKinney could have used all that attention to talk about the missing boys, about tax reform or the plight of Georgia’s underserved economic areas. Instead, she mostly talked about herself. Meanwhile, Milwaukee police badly mishandled the case and ultimately closed it long, agonizing days later, when the two boys were found dead in a storm drain. The official story went forth that they had been playing and one or both of them fell into a storm drain. But the circumstances surrounding the boys’ disappearance and death remain suspicious, with the slow, reluctant actions of the Milwaukee police going unscrutinized, least of all by the woman hogging all the attention at the moment. Cynthia McKinney’s childish, immature exploitation of her constituency, her gender and her race helped obscure what would, in the alternative, have been national attention on this still suspicious case of two dead boys. But the cameras weren’t in Milwaukee. They were in Washington. On her.

This is the real tragedy of individuals exploiting race and gender out of self-interest: it makes real efforts toward equality and social justice that much more difficult. It’s hard to tell who’s legit and who’s just another woman/black/Latino out to play us for dopes. Black America, for certain, has become rightfully more cynical, maturing past our irrational support of all things black, Much as white Americans may wish to believe black America supported Barack Obama from the start, truth was we didn’t get on board until Obama’s campaign appeared to be viable. Black America was, at least initially, firmly in Hillary Clinton’s column, at least until Mrs. Clinton’s ill-advised speech at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. I firmly believe, had Hillary kept her mouth shut at the funeral, where husband Bill Clinton was the rock star, she’d be president today. Trying to follow Bill’s home-run eulogy, Hillary revealed she was not, in fact, Bill Clinton. That she wasn’t as smart as Bill, who’d have had the political savvy to know when to fold ‘em. In that moment, Hillary went from being a lock to being just another candidate in the eyes of black America. Obama, on the other hand, had to earn every black vote. We liked him, but we really didn’t know him or trust him as implicitly as we trusted Bill Clinton. Obama had no coat tails to ride on, and we were skeptical of his motives and the viability of his candidacy. Obama spoke to the mainstream, insisting on not making history so much as making change. And yes, of course, we ultimately rallied to him, but in early going, for most of black America, Hillary Clinton was a foregone conclusion.

Which brings us to the curious case of men like Michael Steele and Alan Keyes, men whose conservative credentials I don’t doubt, but who both seem to be cashing in on their skin color as much as the reverends or Tawana. Steele, elected the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, was also the first African American to serve in a state-wide office as the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, and was the first Republican elected to that office. For weeks now, Steele has been glibly criticizing the new president and rallying the GOP’s calorie-starved obstructionist strategy. Were Steele white, I wouldn’t envy his job. The Republicans simply don’t have any ideas other than to criticize and obstruct everything the president does while quietly hoping—hoping—the recession née depression gets worse or at least hangs on until the fall of 2010. Any economic relief between now and then, any military success between now and then, spells doom for their party. These men and women are hoping, quietly, for economic gloom, for more people to lose their jobs and homes, for more soldiers to lose their lives, for Iraq to collapse and Afghanistan to explode, for Iran to nuke us—something, anything, they can campaign on in 2010. Which makes these people truly evil, and Michael Steele is their man in black face.

I can’t possibly begin to imagine what delusion Mr. Steele is suffering from in thinking he’d have that job were there not a black man sitting in the Oval Office. Whether that is true or not is wholly irrelevant: it looks true. It looks patently obvious, an undeniable fact. Politics is all about public perception, perception often overcoming the reality of any given situation. Whatever the reality of Steele’s elevation, it looks like they picked him because he was black. Because they were roundly and appropriately criticized for having so few black delegates (35) at the Republican National Convention. Because there’s a black man in the White House. True or not, that perception handcuffs Steele and renders impotent Steele’s most important task: increasing diversity in the GOP. The Republicans aren’t going to attract blacks by kicking the first black president in the shins while that president deals with unprecedented threats to the economy and national security of this nation created on their watch. Putting a black face on that criticism only exacerbates the gulf between blacks and Republicans, Steele’s very appointment revealing how woefully out of touch with reality the Republican Party is.

I would take Steele a lot more seriously had John McCain won the election, or had the GOP more smartly named Steele after George W. Bush’s successful reelection. As such, Steele’s elevation seems dubious and insults my intelligence, even as Steele himself has lost much of my respect if not for sin but for certainly the appearance of sin, Mr. Steele’s good now being evil spoken of. His grinning, teeth-bearing, satisfaction at the GOP having left “…a goose egg on the president’s desk,” just made him seem pathetic and irrational. The Republican strategy is so woefully wrongheaded now, holding their breath and pouting at a time of national crisis. Steele seeming actually pleased to be tying the hands of the president who made Steele who he is today.

And, it may cost him. His political ambition could be capped here, as the GOP House Nigger, his credibility completely lost as he seemingly exploits his race, seizing the opportunity only something as inexplicable as a black presidency might ever afford him. I can hardly fault anyone for taking advantage of a tremendous opportunity, and it is likely Mr. Steele believes he can spin straw into gold within the next year or two and outrun the obvious and reasonable charges of being the GOP’s hand puppet. If this is the road to greatness for Michael Steele, it takes an unpleasant shortcut through a grimy alley, Mr. Steele emerging from the other end smelling of the feces Tawana Brawley covered herself in. While he may think of himself as perhaps better than Jackson or Sharpton, he comes across in the eyes of black America as much worse. Steele’s complaints about Mr. Obama seem obviously, childishly political and self-serving, Mr. Steel willing and eager to exploit his skin color for a grab at the brass ring.

Dishonorable mention should also go to Roland Burris, a bizarre, narcissistic little man who has run around repeating, "I am the junior senator from Illinois," to every microphone he could find. In the wake of the Rod R. Blagojevich scandal, in which the Illinois governor apparently attempted to sell the senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, Burris--who's already had his elaborate burial shrine built and engraved, and who named his children Roland and Rolanda--became a controversial figure after Blagojevich appointed him to the Senate shortly before the governor was impeached. Embroiled in controversy and stinking of scandal, Burris nonetheless gleefully accepted the appointment, rather than risk losing it in a perhaps nobler gesture of waiting for the smoke to clear. As such, his senate term was tainted from the very beginning, and the attendant sideshow carnival tended to derail the president's message on many occasions. There's no doubt the Burris acceptance and forced seating were unarguably self-serving, yet another black man using the new president and his race (Burris is currently the nation's only African American senator) to further his political ambitions.

[NYTimes.Com] Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, met privately Tuesday with the state’s junior senator, Roland W. Burris, to suggest that he resign but was rebuffed. “He said he would not resign, and that was his conclusion,” Mr. Durbin said. He said Mr. Burris, who recently acknowledged that he had tried to raise money for former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich before being appointed to fill the seat vacated by President Obama, also said he had not made up his mind about seeking election in 2010. Mr. Durbin told him it would be “extremely difficult for him to be successful in a primary or general election under the circumstances. It’s now up to Senator Burris to deal with the facts and challenges before him,” he said.

Mr. Burris, 71, who has denied any wrongdoing, told reporters he had been advised not to discuss the situation. He left the afternoon meeting with Mr. Durbin without giving his account of it. Despite admissions by Mr. Burris that he sought to raise campaign money for the now-impeached governor and had contacts with the governor’s brother, Senate Democrats appear resigned at the moment to his remaining in Congress.

Which brings us to Alan Keyes. Where do I begin to discuss Mr. Keyes, a man whose made a career out of being The Black Man White Conservatives Send In When They Themselves Can’t Risk Being Perceived As Racist. An American conservative political activist, author, former diplomat and perennial candidate for public office, Keyes ran for President of the United States in 1996, 2000, and 2008, and was a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1988, 1992, and 2004. Keyes served in the U.S. Foreign Service, was appointed Ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations under President Ronald Reagan, and served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs from 1985 to 1987. [Wikipedia]

Keyes, who has lost every election he’s run for, posits himself as an arch conservative and a critic of an America that sees blacks as only liberal Democrats. His is a kind of Holy War, Keyes being a kind of conservative apologist and alternative to Sharpton and Jackson. He’s always come across, to me, as just as big an opportunist as either man, whom he ironically criticizes even while exploiting his own race in much the same way he accuses them of doing.

An earnest conservative, like Clarence Thomas, earns my respect a lot more than a political animal like Keyes whose objectives seem to be underscored by a tragic self-loathing. Over the years he has come across as increasingly reactionary, perhaps climaxing with last week’s remarks which have, most certainly, caused the U.S. Secret Service and FBI to open a case file on him. Keyes seems to be a black politician who either hates being black or for whatever reason embraces no black causes in any meaningful way. And he does this under cover of being an conservative, as if conservatism and social justice are somehow mutually exclusive.

Last week, Keyes stopped woefully short of inciting violence against the president of the United States, whom Keyes described as a "radical Communist" who must be stopped. Keyes seems to obviously loathe the president (he moved to Illinois to run a carpet bagger campaign against Obama in 2004), and came just short of encouraging the U.S. Armed Forces to not follow their commander in chief’s orders. Keyes’ rhetoric, which can be viewed here, all but calls for Obama’s assassination and/or military coup, Keyes now embracing the reactionary rhetoric of scary people who’d voted for Gidget and Grandpa. His rhetoric only seems rational to thumb-sucking children with AK-47’s and AR-15’s in gun racks mounted on their Ford F-250’s. These are very scary people Keyes is stirring up, which makes Keyes more than just laughably pathetic, it makes him dangerous.

This is a tragic display of black hatred so deeply ingrained that we have a black man spewing hate at another black man while claiming race has nothing to do with it. The emperor everyone knows is naked but him. Which isn’t to say every black person who criticizes the president is self-loathing or reactionary. But this is sad by any reasonably objective perspective.

And this is the new American growth industry: black people who will attack the president. The religious and political right are taking applications now. It is a sure-fire way to be seen, to make headlines, to become elevated. The conservative opposition, reeling from Obama’s massive stimulus plan and his massive budget which hammers the rich in order to give relief to the poor, is precisely what the GOP feared would happen in an Obama-Pelosi-run world: a repudiation of the past eight years of bankrupt Washington values. But, going after the president is difficult. Making a case for continued tax breaks to the rich, in the face of economic disaster, is a fairly impossible task. The GOP’s usual rhetoric, irrationality and lies, just bounce off the new guy as both tactics are now transparently political at a time of national crisis. The GOP Borg Collective is, therefore, in a stirred frenzy trying to find some effective way to undermine and thwart the president, and they are hungry for black voices to carry their message.

Men like Keyes and, to a lesser extent, Steele, stand out not because of innovative thinking or even a wealth of accomplishment. They stand out because their views tend to be diametrically opposed to the African American mainstream. Standing relatively alone, they tend to stand out, playing the race card in reverse by finding support and acceptance mainly from white conservatives eager to prove they are not bigots.

Conservatism, in and of itself, is certainly no vice. But pointing fingers at Jackson and Sharpton seems sublimely ironic if not hypocritical from men whose political existence is defined by their skin color and whose most extraordinary achievement is being on the wrong side of history. I'm not sure which possibility is worse: that these men do not realize they're being cynically used as beards for conservative racism or, worse, that they don't care as long as it politically elevates them.

Christopher J. Priest
1 March 2009

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