Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Walking on ice. And slipping

Do black pols need to be perfect? Two very different examples -- the good Barack Obama and the not-so-good Chaka Fattah -- both seem to make that case.

Much would be made of blue-collar voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan who'd pulled the lever for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then for Trump in 2016. Surely these voters disproved racism as an explanatory force. It's still not clear how many individual voters actually flipped. But the underlying presumption—that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could be swapped in for each other—exhibited a problem. Clinton was a candidate who'd won one competitive political race in her life, whose political instincts were questioned by her own advisers, who took more than half a million dollars in speaking fees from an investment bank because it was "what they offered," who proposed to bring back to the White House a former president dogged by allegations of rape and sexual harassment. Obama was a candidate who'd become only the third black senator in the modern era; who'd twice been elected president, each time flipping red and purple states; who'd run one of the most scandal-free administrations in recent memory. Imagine an African American facsimile of Hillary Clinton: She would never be the nominee of a major political party and likely would not be in national politics at all.

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, "My President Was Black," Atlantic magazine cover story.

If anyone was missed during the crazy 2016 election season, it was the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguably (at least I would argue) the great American public intellectual of the 21st Century. He was partly off the trail doing comic books (!), but mainly it seems he was working on this epic history of Barack Obama's presidency. His main point: That Obama, as the first and -- who knows, maybe the last? -- black president, had to spend eight years walking on ice. And yet he made it across.

Ironically, the much-talked-about Coates' piece dropped on the very same day that a federal judge sentenced former Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah to a surprisingly long ten years in the slammer (after prosecutors had sought a staggering 17 to 22 years). My Daily News colleague Jenice Armstrong wrote a controversial and highly provocative column arguing that, as a high-profile black politician, Fattah should have known he needed to be twice as good, even in our local sea of corruption:

"Black people in any profession . . . we have to make sure that we go above and beyond the concept of dotting every i and crossing every t," attorney Michael Coard said yesterday. "This is America. And there are things that white folks in America, elected officials or not, can get away with that black folks can't ... stuff that is wrong, stuff that looks wrong, and stuff that might be wrong."

I have remarkably mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I never held enormous respect for Fattah even when he was at the height of his career -- his accomplishments seemed overhyped, and there were whispers even when I covered city politics in the 1990s about his growing pyramids of non-profits, etc., run by his allies. The facts that emerged at his recent trial -- a complicated scheme to use taxpayer dollars, taking freebies from wealthy, favor-seeking political pals -- were felonies, deserving of punishment. Fattah was certainly a poster child for the moral rot at the core of the Philadelphia Democratic Party.

At the same time, the 10 year sentence feels excessive, and evidence suggests that it is. A telling graphic that ran with Armstrong's column showed that of the nine Congress members guilty of corruption since 2000, only one received more jail time, William Jefferson of Louisiana, who got 13 years. Did I mention that Jefferson is also black? In the big Philadelphia corruption scandal of the 2000s, the longest jail term, by far, also went to an African American, Corey Kemp. Is it possible that the gross racial disparities in our criminal justice system extends to political crimes? It sure looks that way.

The bottom line? Chaka Fattah slipped on that ice, big time. But he sure did some stupid stunts along the way.

Blogger's note: Attytood is taking an undeserved day off on Wednesday. I'll be back Thursday night -- hopefully, if all goes well, with coverage of the president-elect in Hershey. How sweet it is!