Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fighting Racism in Congress

In THE HUFFINGTON POST last Tuesday, Michael McAuliff compiled interviews of several African American members of Congress in order to expose the struggles these successful men face on a day-to-day basis. These timely interviews reveal that racism does not only affect youths such as Trayvon Martin; it also impacts the lives of our country's African American law-making officials. One of the interviewees, Rep. Hank Johnson, claims that he can tell a white woman is frightened by his presence when getting on an elevator and that "you can feel her tense up" (4:11). This leads to a troubling truth: despite our country's seeming embrace of an African American political leader, African American members of Congress feel that they must continue to fight racial stereotypes.

In RUMOR, REPRESSION, AND RACIAL POLITICS, George Derek Musgrove specifically addresses the role of race in the political careers of African Americans, covering the years of 1965 to 1995 to bring readers within twenty years of present-day issues. Throughout his book, Musgrove examines the disproportionate investigation of African American elected officials and their response, which he calls "harassment ideology." As Musgrove proves, this harassment ideology has shaped our current political culture, and it "illustrates the deep mistrust that continues to plague a society marred by pronounced racial inequality and distrust" (12). To strengthen his argument, he provides firsthand interviews of twenty-five sitting and former African American members of Congress, including Julian Bond and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

While many of the interviews from THE HUFFINGTON POST reveal racism that current Congressmen experience once they go home and "throw on a t-shirt and gym shorts," Rep. Alcee Hastings acknowledges that he frequently encounters racism while at work. In his interview, Hastings exposes the unfortunate similarities between high school cafeteria seating arrangements and those within Congress, concluding that neither is immune from segregation (5:44). Later, Hastings remarks on the typical reaction he perceives when pitted against his white counterpart: "Even with a badge on, people tend to look at the white Congressman rather than me, and you can see it" (6:25).

Musgrove himself cites Hastings as an example of continued discrimination of African American political leaders today, but he moves beyond Hastings' everyday interactions and places him within the larger narrative of harassment ideology. Musgrove believes that though various committees made progress in the nineties, "Since 2008 black elected officials have again come under the microscope," and this is most evident in the high percentage of investigations of African American members of Congress conducted by right-wing legal organizations. In 2011, Judicial Watch, an organization that Musgrove characterizes as "a conservative watchdog organization with a long history of filing suit against Democratic lawmakers," filed sexual harassment charges against Hastings (215). In keeping with his stance throughout the study, Musgrove refuses to determine the guilt of Hastings; instead, he leaves his readers to ponder what prompted the allegations in the first place.

RUMOR, REPRESSION, AND RACIAL POLITICS can equip the general public with a historical context to better understand racial discrimination today. It seems unlikely that the issue of racism—whether against African American teenagers or political leaders—will soon go away, but as long as the conversation continues in both the mainstream media and studies such as Musgrove's, there is hope for greater awareness and eventual change.