John McWhorter

Is the CBC Uniquely Unethical?

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Not so long ago, all eight of the members of Congress being investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics were black. Now, two powerful black members of the Congressional Black Caucus are on the griddle. There are two entirely appropriate responses.

One of them is to wonder if there is something racial going on. Yes, that is reasonable. Dismissals of this line of reasoning as mere “crying racism” are, in this case, hasty. Bloggers blithely listing white people who have fallen into the OCE’s line of sight as disproof of the racism charge are missing the point. The issueso often missed in discussions of race but usually by those crying wolf, not their detractorsis proportion. All eight? Two leading black legislators in two weeks? One is not a race-baiter to ask questions.

Then, the other entirely appropriate response is to ask another question: is there some trait local to the Congressional Black Caucus that makes its members especially likely to commit improprieties of the kind under concern?

The typical understanding is that there is not. As Ronald Walters of U. Maryland’s African American Leadership Center said yesterday, “the swamp is largely white,” referring to the proverbial swamp House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced was to be cleared by efforts such as the OCE’s. And none of us are under any illusion that white legislators haven’t been requiring corporations to “pay to play” since, well, the dawn of the republic.

But is it this simple? There is indeed something that distinguishes the Congressional Black Caucus from other caucuses in Congress. It is not only an alliance of heads put together, but a massively successful fund-raising outfit, soliciting funds from corporations for nonprofit activities. Nominally there is also a political action committee, but the vast bulk of the corporate donations go to the charities. Inevitably the line between the political and the charitable is fuzzy, and the reality is that contribution to these nonprofit activities rather clearly has an effect on the CBC’s political positions (i.e. votes), as detailed here some months ago.

Business as usual in Washington? Yes, but unsurprisingly, individual CBC members also have their personal nonprofits, such as Charles Rangel’s now famous Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College, getting in on the action. (James Clyburn, who seems to have been adopted by the media as the soul of black American Civil Rights-era opinion, has one too.)

The chances that a subset of the high-profile donors that CBC members deal withsuch as Coca-Cola, Verizon, General Motors, and Wal-Martwill not, in good time, have business before central committees such as Ways and Means, which Rangel has had to step down from, are small. As such, CBC members are highly susceptible to conflict-of-interest slip-ups, and we would assume they would therefore be especially vigilant.

Why, then, would Rangel be so, as he himself put it, “sloppy” in policing the line between serving larger interests and serving himself, or at least the appearances thereof? Here, after all is the man who came into office watching his predecessorAdam Clayton Powell, Jr.dragged down for ethical lapses hardly unknown among white peers.

Racism is, I suspect, part of the story herebut not in the way we’re supposed to think. Is there a part of Rangel that has supposed that the ethics are fundamentally different for him since his nonprofit is devoted to battling the legacies of institutional racism? The CBC traditionally calls itself “the conscience of Congress,” and in its public statements and activities often functions as a kind of alternate NAACP rather than as a generator of legislation. Under this frame of mind, there would be little difference between serving “myself” and serving “my people.” Surely to combat racism is a greater good than any other. My nonprofit is the fight against racism. The fight against racism is me. Me is the fight against racism. Why not improvise a little, especially if no one is looking?

This seems to be the only kind of explanation, given data in so far, on Maxine Waters’ transgression. She consults with Barney Frank about the propriety of setting up a meeting over bailout funds between Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and a consortium of minority-owned banks when her husband was a stockholder in one of the banks. Frank says it isn’t a good idea, and yet she goes ahead with it, right down to the meeting itself being populated mainly by reps of the very bank her husband was involved with?

To suppose she was concerned solely with preserving her husband’s stock returns may have its kicks. But a better fit with her entire career’s mission, not to mention her current justifications, is that she felt that saving minority banks was a greater good. It’s not hard to see that she, in that position, would readily use as a main conduit the personal connections she naturally had with people at the bank her husband was involved with.

Especially if no one was looking. After all, look at what she has sometimes done even while people were lookingI will never forget her dancing on camera with L.A. gang members.

The visibility issue is, likely, as key as the sense of greater good. Rangel and Waters are such lions that they haven’t had to face challenges in eons. Both would still be voted back in by their constituents today. Too often with both of them, nobody has really been looking to catch ethical lapses that have crept in, whether due to a confusion of the boundary between the self and the Civil Rights Movement or to scruffier things like Rangel’s tax lapses.

Note, in contrast, DC’s Adrian Fenty and his challenger Vincent Gray throwing mud at each other over petty ethical lapses. Fenty simply can’t drift into the openly Tweed-esque dry rot of the kind older generation black pols like Rangel and Waters can.

Other cases of black congressmen under the ethical spotlight of late are due, really, to chance. Roland Burris and Jesse Jackson, Jr. happened to get pulled into the slimy realm of Rod Blagojevich’s grubby quest to become an old-style city boss, of a once-in-a-generation "Who'd-a-thunk-it?" shamelessness. Chicago has long had a substantial contingent of black lawmakerswhich I assume we consider a good thing in itself. But black lawmakers will be playing The Game as much as white ones, and if a freakish phenomenon like Blagojevich happens into a drivers’ seat, then big surprise, some of the people who get their toes run over may be black.

And then, OCE attention has not been an inevitable death sentence for black lawmakers. One reason few could recall now what the issue was with California’s Laura Richardson, investigated for a questionable break on her mortgage, was that she was cleared of charges.

Is this the Teachable Moment for this week after all that we supposedly learned three weeks ago from the NAACP/Tea Party fracas and what we learned the week after that about Shirley Sherrod? If so, there are two lessons.

One is that admitting that racism is no longer black people’s main problem does not mean that all calls to assess whether it is in operation are meaningless.

However, another one is that the question “Is this about racism?” cannot be taken as automatically answering itself in the affirmative. The main lesson from the attention the CBC is getting from the OCE is that the CBC needs to get its act together. After all, they canall they have to do is be more careful and usher new members into a similar frame of mind.

Perhaps for the reasons I have proposed it’s understandable that some of its members would be less inclined to watch their backs and dot every i and cross every t when it comes to conflict of interest issues. But this can serve as explanation only, not excuse. To have not yet reached the mountaintop is not to be exempt from following the rules.

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