Taking civil rights leaders to task

Race matters, but largely because many black civil rights leaders need it to matter in order to stay relevant.

Darren Bernard

Reason No. 5,168 many black “civil rights” leaders have lost all credibility: Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga.

In case you’ve been paying attention to more important news this week, McKinney is the black Georgia U.S. representative who, after failing to heed police officers’ demands that she stop at a Capitol Hill security checkpoint last Monday afternoon, turned and smacked a cop.

Here’s to another member of Congress facing jail time.

The actual episode reads like a kids’ version of the Dick Cheney shooting incident, which should mean only Washington political hacks would know about it. But the response to the event has become a sad reminder of something far worse than the fiery tempers on Capitol Hill.

To hear McKinney’s supporters tell it, it was some misogynist racist cop who manhandled her just for kicks. At McKinney’s press conference last Saturday, Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte magically appeared to, as Belafonte said, “be sure that this process is handled fairly and it is not rooted in a familiar racist behavior.” The Georgia chapter president of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People claimed the episode “points to the vigor of outright disrespect for women and people of color.”

McKinney herself explained to reporters, “This whole incident was instigated by the inappropriate touching and stopping of me, a female black congresswoman” – you know, because the Capitol Hill police, the people responsible for the safety of the nation’s lawmakers, have nothing better to do than harass middle-aged black women.

McKinney has a less-than-decorous history of spinning race-laden conspiracy theories and launching shameless political attacks, so her yarn is hardly surprising. But what should disturb all Americans is how quickly the NAACP and other respected black groups dropped the words sexism and racism without a lick of evidence, as if bigotry were the only plausible explanation. Dare I say it? Many – by no means all – black civil rights leaders have gone nuts.

There are more than enough examples of rights leaders taking advantage of their position and their constituents for personal gain. Take the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s corrupt dealings on Wall Street or NAACP Chairman Julian Bond’s comparison of Republicans to Nazis and Confederates. Or the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s despicable attempt to turn Coretta Scott King’s funeral into a political rally.

Yet for all the times these rights leaders lecture Americans on racism and politics, one has to wonder why none of the criticism is directed internally. Almost no one has brought up the resurgence of gang violence among young blacks. When was the last time Al Sharpton ragged on 50 Cent for playing up promiscuity and materialism? Have any black members of Congress called hearings on the increasingly violent content in rap music? When did Jesse Jackson last give a speech on curbing the insane rates of out-of-wedlock births among Ö oh, wait.

And don’t say black leaders haven’t had the chance to work on issues like misogyny, violence and class. However novel, rap music has spawned a culture of the worst depravity that feeds on inner-city teenagers. Lil’ Kim is only the most recent big-name black rap artist to land jail time, and Busta Rhymes is one of a handful of hip-hop celebrities who has chosen to stay quiet about the killing of a security guard in Brooklyn. Thuggish videos whose speakers warn against talking to police have been uncovered all along the Eastern Seaboard, even while the most high-profile murders in the rap community (think Tupac or Jam Master Jay) have gone unsolved.

Pray tell, dearest McKinney, is this the result of racism, too?

To be totally fair, part of the reason black leaders sound so racism-obsessed is that the press frames it that way. And in the background of all the publicity antics are real efforts by black groups to promote inner-city education and civic engagement and responsible sex lives. The NAACP is leading an effort now to ensure displaced Katrina victims can register to vote before the April 22 New Orleans election. Check it out at the NAACP Web site.

But my point still stands. As much as has-been black civil rights leaders want to attribute problems that affect the black community to racism, there are times when skin color is totally irrelevant. There were plenty of white people who could not escape Katrina, but they, too, like most of the blacks left behind, were poor. No average person is allowed to hit a police officer – why should McKinney get away with it?

The purpose of all this is not to somehow prove race doesn’t matter. Quite the reverse, in fact: Race matters, but largely because black civil rights leaders need it to matter in order to stay relevant.

The recent race riots along Australian beaches and in French suburbs should remind us that even we chic Westerners suffer from the same petty ethnic rifts as Iraqis and Sri Lankans. We hardly need leaders to stoke those divisions simply because it makes for a good campaign ad. And it is for that reason that McKinney, along with so many other black leaders like her, should be ashamed.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]