Political Race

Recently on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, D.C. Council at-large candidate Anita Bonds addressed the question of race in politics quite bluntly, stating that “I just try to make it clear that people want to have their leadership reflect who they are. And the majority of the District of Columbia is still African American, 50 percent is African American, so there’s a natural tendency to want your own.” I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t taken aback by her statement when I heard it repeated on Morning Edition a few days later, but upon reflection I realized that the situation isn’t quite as simple as I wanted to believe at first.

Normally in a situation like this I would turn to my classical liberal values, but I find they come up somewhat short in this instance. It is not as if Ms. Bonds is suggesting that anyone be excluded from participating in the electoral process; she is simply suggesting an opinion of what the people want, and a surprisingly honest one at that. Nor do I believe her intent was to suggest a specific mandatory make-up of the Council to reflect the racial identity of the city. While I may not be inclined to agree with her position, it is her right to express it, and lacking any sort of coercion on the electorate I have no specific objection to offer.

I’m far from a bleeding heart liberal, but I’m at least cognizant of the fact that I have no idea of what it’s like to be a minority in America today. I’ve also studied enough political history to realize that any racial minority, and African Americans in particular, has been vastly under-represented in the political system historically speaking. With that sort of past to draw on, why wouldn’t someone naturally gravitate toward a politician they believe can understand on a gut level their struggles, the things they have had to go through, the issues they have endured? If nothing else, it is, as Ms. Bonds points out, “a natural tendency to want your own”. Given that the majority of the D.C. Council is made up of white politicians in a majority black city, it is at least on the surface a fair point.

On the other hand, if any white politician were to suggest anything of the sort, they would be lucky if the only thing that happened to them was that they were booed out of office. And if we were to take this logic beyond the city level, to the state or even national level, where does that leave us? Are we to suggest to people that rather than trying to find common ground across ethnic and racial lines they should instead further entrench themselves deeper within their bulwarks of isolationism? That hardly seems to be the way forward for us as a country, and I doubt it’s the message that we would want to send to other countries around the world as they struggle with their own sectarian struggles.

Even if we were to take Ms. Bonds’ opinion as valid for the sake of argument, and there are (as I previously mentioned) at least some historical and cultural reasons to do so, it does beg a few questions. The first is, should we expect the Council to perfectly reflect the racial identity of the city? Or are we simply looking to ensure that the politicians that we elect are representing the interests of all the citizens, including those who feel they have been ignored for too long? If so, how do we know that those of one race will be any better than another at being more inclusive? And most of all, at what point do we decide that we’re willing to say we have made up for the iniquities of the past and we are ready to move forward, to elect politicians not because they reflect our appearance but rather because they reflect our values?

The truth is I don’t have the answers to these questions. But based on her willingness to make that assertion, I am left wondering if Ms. Bonds has even asked them.