Sunday, October 26, 2008

What does "race" mean in today's politics?

In Boston there is a reportedly bitter fight for the State Senate seat in the 2nd Suffolk District. Incumbent Dianne Wilkerson, an African American woman, lost in the primary to Sonia Chang Diaz, an American-born woman who is (at least) 50% Latina. Wilkerson is now running a right-in campaign against Diaz. Part of her argument is that as a black woman she can better represent minorities in Roxbury, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain than Diaz, who isn't a minority. "Race is definitely an issue in this campaign," I heard Wilkerson say on a WBUR interview yesterday afternoon.

WAIT A MINUTE! Did I hear that correctly? Both candidates could be called minorities by the US Census. African American isn't more "racial" than Latina. They are both minority groups that that face systemic, institutional oppression. What the heck is happening in Boston politics that two women would be qwibbling over who is more oppressed and therefore more qualified to represent other minorities? If race is a qualification, who is to say that Wilkerson can represent the Asians in Chinatown that are part of the 2nd Suffolk District, or the Latinos who dominate Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain? Has the word "race" become a code to mean "black"? And, if so, why can't we just say "Black" or "African American"? And, how can this ridiculousness be happening while on the national stage our nation is rallying behind a strong, smart charismatic leader who happens to be biracial? Presidential politics show us that as a nation we are (finally) ready to see that an African American man can be the best qualified candidate. For many people the election isn't about race, but about qualification.

What qualifies someone to be an elected leader? I would argue that it is the ability to positively motivate a team of people toward a common goal or purpose. It is savvy intelligence, and the ability to identify and convene a complementary group of people together to work together to implement strategic priorities. A record of accomplishment - both in one's personal life and professional life, integrity, strong and inspiring communication skills, ability to communicate values of justice and fairness are also high on my list of priorities for a leader. An elected official doesn't need to look like the people s/he represents in order to represent them. If this were the case, we'd either need 20+ presidents working together to represent all the kinds of people in the United States, or we'd need to be satisfied with having only one or two constituencies represented at a time. A strong elected leader doesn't need to look like the people s/he represents in order to represent them. They just need to be able to listen and trust the experience of their constituents as expressed directly by the people or their proxies (e.g. union reps, other elected officials, advocates).

If I were a voter in the 2nd Suffolk District I would in fact wonder about Dianne Wilkerson's "character" because of her personal problems - bankruptcy, ethics violations and financial misconduct chief among them. I would also consider her accomplishments as an incumbent Senator in my consideration of her being fit for office. And, I probably would have voted for Chang Diaz in the primary. I believe Dianne Wilkerson's politics and rhetoric about race are dangerous and mistrustful and not what we need in Boston or America.


Anonymous said...

The issue is bigger than race. The issue is political representation and trust. MA voted for a black governer and whites trusted that he would serve the interest of all. If he does not, all hell will break loose, regardless of his race. Historically, what has happened to elected white officials who did not serve the interest of black communities? Why was there a need for an ethinic minority in the first place? How many years did blacks in America fight for civil rights and voting rights? How many whites and blacks were killed and how much blood shed for these rights? Elected officials worked to prevent them from voting and to prohibit any type of representation. This was not 100 years ago. Race riots in Boston stopped in the 80's. You have to understand the distrust the community still has. It is deeply ingrained. This is not a Wilkerson issue. This is an American wound that has not been healed. Only time can do so.

Beaconhill said...

Well, I guess we know where this race is going now that Senator Wilkerson has been charged with public corruption for allegedly taking bribes. What a mess.