As I watched the film Mississippi Burning the other night on television, I couldn't help being struck by how much has changed -- not just since the dark days of segregation in which the film is set, but since I first saw the film as a child. Watching some of its more disturbing scenes of gross brutality and endless racial epithets, I found some solace and amusement in trying to imagine the reaction of those same Klansmen in today's America. An America in which Blacks not only have the right to vote but in which one is the most powerful man in the nation. But I was also struck by how much the definition of "racism" appears to have changed. Unbeknownst to me, it has apparently evolved from lynching and denial of the right to vote, to simply being incapable of convincing people to vote for you, at least according to New York's current Governor David Paterson.
Paterson sparked a fury when during an appearance on my buddy Errol Louis's radio program he inferred that his plunging support for re-election was due in part to his race. In his not entirely coherent remarks -- which are better heard than read -- he notes that fellow African-American Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is also facing harsh criticism and daunting re-election prospects -- something Paterson sees as more than mere coincidence but proof that "We're not in the post-racial period." While I would agree with the Governor that talk of "post-racialism" is hooey, that is about the only thing in his statement that I can agree with. It pains me to write this post, in part because I do consider the Governor to be a smart, funny man who, on a personal note, has shown kindness to the friends I have who have worked for him (some of whom I presume may remove me from their Christmas card lists after reading this). But what pains me even more is seeing minorities who undermine the struggles of those who are facing real discrimination each and every day, by falsely claiming discrimination to save their own skin when it suits them.
It seemed impossible that any New York politician could move the popularity bar any lower than Eliot Spitzer (who thanks to Hooker-gate will be a lifetime punchline), but barely a year into the job voters had spoken, with a majority saying they would take Spitzer, socks in bed and all, over Paterson.
Paterson began writing his political obituary with his bungling of the appointment process to replace former Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The ensuing circus gave the Governor what he appeared to be seeking, a national platform, but he learned the hard way that the adage "all press is good press," is not always true. If the end result left Caroline Kennedy's image bruised it left the Governor's battered -- to a pulp. The fallout left him looking indecisive, bordering on incompetent, two characteristics voters do not want in a leader particularly during uncertain economic times. But it left the Governor with something more problematic than falling poll numbers: new-found political enemies.
The perception that he stood by helplessly and haplessly as New York's state legislature descended into chaos only bolstered voters' negative view of him and his poll numbers reached George W. Bush (final months in office) depths. But somehow -- in Paterson's view -- unlike the former President, his poll numbers were not well deserved but somehow the fault of a biased media. He warned in his recent remarks that "the next victim on the list -- and you can see it coming -- is President Barack Obama," in part because of the increasingly heated health care debate. But I have a newsflash for the Governor. The president and some other Black elected officials have already been targets of real racism in recent weeks, including Congressman David Scott who was greeted with a swastika spray-painted outside of his office and hate mail calling him the "n-word."
Then, of course, there are the incidents at various town hall meetings that at this point are too numerous to count. There was the meeting in Missouri where a Black woman holding a sign featuring civil rights icon Rosa Parks had it torn from her hands and ripped up, as members of the crowd applauded. And one of the most troubling incidents of all, a man holding a sign reading "Death to Michelle and her Two Stupid Kids."
If anything, President Obama's unwillingness to blame race whenever the going gets tough (and it's been pretty tough lately) has probably been one of the single most important factors in his political rise, and ultimately will be in his survival. (According to reports, the White House has expressed displeasure with Paterson's remarks which the Governor has since sought to "clarify"--albeit not very convincingly.)
What Governor Paterson is experiencing is not racism but the reality check of a poor job performance review. The Governor is right about one thing though. Ultimately race may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of his career, but not because New Yorkers or the media have a problem with having a Black Governor. What New Yorkers and Americans of all races do have a problem with is someone using racism as a shield for their own shortcomings. Every time a minority -- any minority, Black, Hispanic, gay, female or anyone else -- cries wolf, it makes it that much tougher for the next one who actually does get bitten.
And committing such a travesty is just as reprehensible as committing an act of bigotry itself.