10/05/2006 07:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Race and Representing Memphis

U.S. Representative Harold Ford's campaign for an open seat in the Senate has received an increasing amount of attention now that Republican fortunes have turned for the worst. However, the far more interesting race is the one to succeed him in representing the ninth congressional district of Tennessee. The election presents a curious choice for some Black Memphians who seek more political power in the hands of African Americans. On the one hand, they could elect Harold's brother Jake Ford, a patently unqualified African American high school dropout with a G.E.D. so that they can continue a 30-year string of Black representatives for the Memphis-based district. On the other, they could vote for Steve Cohen, the far better qualified candidate who happens to be White. Electing Jake Ford would be a travesty to the political process.

Jake Ford is not the first candidate to try to cash in on his family name; indeed, George Bush is President of the United States in large part, because of his name - names like Kennedy, Kean, Casey, Daley, and Hutchinson are synonymous with politics in many parts of the country. But in this case, Jake Ford is out of bounds and running for a seat for which no one else with his lack of credentials would ever have the audacity to seek. It is hard to argue against local critics who contend that this is nothing more than an attempt to extend the Ford political dynasty at the expense of qualified congressional representation.

Steve Cohen, winner of the Democratic primary, is Ford's biggest obstacle. Cohen is White, Jewish, and reliably progressive with political positions in line with a majority of the district. A Tennessee state senator with nearly 30 years of legislative experience, he is clearly the best candidate for the seat. Indeed, his state senate seat represents many of the same voters as the ninth congressional district. Ford's name recognition, however, cannot be ignored and he must be taken seriously as some wonder if his candidacy could syphon enough votes from Cohen that the Republican candidate may have an outside shot at winning. Wouldn't that be ironic for Black nationalists in the district? By supporting an unqualified candidate because he's Black, they may open the door for someone who will support Bush policies.

A Black ministers group is supporting Ford by trading in racism and narrow-minded political ignorance to oppose a qualified candidate in favor of someone who shouldn't even be in the race. They and others who support Ford on the notion that the district must be represented by an African American are taking racial solidarity in an unfortunate direction and miss an important point: double-standards almost always come back to haunt. Don't they understand that if Whites took the same position around the country that they take, then the Barack Obama's of the world never win?

While I understand and support increasing the number of African American elected officials around the country, I can't help but wonder what damage to cross-racial political alliances would be done if Ford were to win. Hopefully, voters will do the right thing and reward someone worthy of the honor of representing them in Congress.