Archives for: July 2012, 19
When Coleman Young became mayor of Detroit, it was quite a week. He was not only the first African-American to become mayor of the city, he was elected in 1973 the same week as Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. Two well known cities electing their first black mayors.
It is easy to forget four decades later how much of a breakthrough it was. Black people had long before become a noticeable presence in urban areas. The migration from an oppressive Jim Crow South had had its hundred year effect in northern areas. Politicians paid attention, gave speeches, made promises, often kept them. Racism was far from the remnant of the past that many white folks liked to imagine. Black voters were a source of electoral power, but they were not to share in it in any meaningful way. Up until then.
African-American mayors? Yeah, those were milestones.
There were construction policies and financial hurdles that Coleman Young faced beginning the day he took office. He was a critic of a police unit that had racked up an impressive number of kills in the black community. He disbanded it and set up community policing, officers walking the beat, engaging with the community in an effort to win neighborhood cooperation. Results were mixed at best. Statistics remained nearly the same.
There were two things I remember most about Mayor Young. During a visit to relatives near Detroit, I happened across some local publication quoting Coleman Young. I'm pretty sure it was not a mainstream paper. The language is mild today but it was startling back then, coming from a major public official.
"Racism is like high blood pressure," said Mayor Young in a moment of reflection. "The person who has it doesn’t know he has it until he drops over with a God damned stroke. There are no symptoms of racism. The victim of racism is in a much better position to tell you whether or not you’re a racist than you are."
It was taken at the time as a generalization about white people. The all-whites-are-racist was a developing meme at the time. I took it differently. I saw it as a counter to the image of racism as the province of drooling maniacs, moral reprobates, wife beaters, child molesters. Racism was being presented by Young a little differently, as a soft core affliction, a half-hidden malady. The idea that racism could find hosts among good, occasionally very good, people was an epiphany of sorts. It meant we were vulnerable, there was no immunity. Our common cause had to include meditative introspection.
His words also brought a bit of perspective to me as I began discovering other sorts of bigotry, sometimes within myself. Homophobia was not even a word when it eventually came to me that it was wrong. Hidden attitudes, belatedly examined, come with culture, with the times, with whatever daily wisdom is available to us.
Bigotry is a terrible evil with a power to inflict great wounds. It is a sword all too casually wielded by well meaning people who never give it a thought. Me? Are you kidding? I don't wear a hood. "I'm not prejudiced," a member of the community told me as a I participated in a neighborhood canvass. "I'll tell you who IS prejudiced, though. It's those damn Irish Catholics." He spoke with no trace of irony.
And, there was that other thing, what for me was the second memorable moment in the politics of Coleman Young. It was 1976. Jimmy Carter was running for President. Mo Udall had become the liberal alternative. Udall was a Mormon. This was a couple of years before the leadership of the Latter Day Saints experienced a revelation about racial inclusion. The Mormon Church in 1976 regarded black people as unfit for leadership posts.
Coleman Young spoke to a group of Baptist ministers on behalf of Jimmy Carter. "I'm asking you to make a choice between a man from Georgia who fights to let you in his church, and a man from Arizona whose church won't even let you in the back door."
The reaction was swift and came at Young from all directions. You don't attack a candidate for the way he worships God. Young should apologize. Jimmy Carter should apologize. Both refused. Udall repeated what he had long said, that his church did not determine his beliefs about equality. He was committed to civil rights and social justice. He managed to include religion as he joked about having lost an eye as a child. "I’m a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona. You can’t find a higher handicap than that."
Nobody, nobody at all, ever mentioned Udall's church again. It became the non-issue of 1976. Once burned, twice shy, I suppose. That or everyone had a sudden attack of conscience. Okay, okay, scorched reticence.
In a sense, I suppose, this should have prepared America for a future Mormon running for President. Mitt Romney faced unjustified questions in the Republican primary in 2007 and 2008. There was not much that was overt in this primary season four years later, but the undercurrents were there.
They were nothing compared with the racially tinged attacks on Barack Obama's religion in 2008. There was nothing subtle or hidden about those. Could he possibly have been an unknowing congregant, not hearing all that unAmerica sermonizing? Obama answered the attacks to the satisfaction of enough Americans during a major address to become President. The issue did not die, brought up repeatedly by partisans, but most Americans regarded the accusations as answered. It became a dead letter issue.
In candidate Obama's case, religion had been coupled with an odd accusation. He had once been invited by a fundraising supporter to a gathering at the home of a college faculty member. Obama had once encountered the professor at a social gathering. Decades before, Professor Bill Ayres had been a violent radical, an irresponsible thug. He had carried out the middle-of-the-night bombing of a campus statue, a pointless and reckless bit of vandalism. Fortunately, nobody had been hurt.
Because he attended the fundraiser, Barack Obama was, years later, accused of retroactively supporting the bombing. It pretty much had to be retroactive. He had been six years old at the time the destruction was carried out.
This season, you will hear more about Mitt Romney's tax returns and his financial wheeling and dealing. It seems a natural consequence of his rationale for running. People, he says, should vote for him because of his business success. Other candidates who came from great wealth have run for President in the past. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were much beloved by those who were economically downtrodden. Mitt Romney is the very first nominee of a major party, the first ever, whose entire case is his own personal wealth.
He says he should become President because he made a lot of money. Fair enough. The case he presents should be examined.
The old, old and discredited, charges against Obama are being resurrected: the religious questions about the patriotism of his former pastor, the radicalism of his professor acquaintance. The reason being given for bringing those issues back from the grave is that he was not properly vetted the last time around.
The response may seem self-serving. "Attacking someone’s religion is really going too far. It’s just not the American way, and I think people will reject that." Those words, of course, come from Mitt Romney on the Today Show in 2007.
The "vetting" will continue, started by Sean Hannity and carried forward by other surrogates. After all, you have to look into a candidate's past to try and figure out what he might do later.
In case he ... you know ... ever becomes President.