National Opinions

In Ferguson, little leadership from black elected officials

By Charles D. Ellison

The Root

It's the question bound to come up when an unarmed black person gets gunned down, choked or beaten by a white cop with a loose trigger: What are black politicians going to do about it? And, to the consternation of folks asking, the answer is not as black and white as they'd like it.

"Will the Congressional Black Caucus hold a press conference and push for justice on this string of unarmed black folks killed by cops?" groused hip-hop commentator Davey D.

Good question.

Unfortunately, Congress is on a five-week recess. That includes the 43 black members who don't reconvene until their annual late-September CBC Foundation extravaganza. When Congress goes on break, so does the rest of Washington-along with the President Barack Obama, vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, who quickly issued a statement on the death of beloved comedian-actor Robin Williams but who took near three days before public "reflection" on events sparked by the death of a random college-bound black teen.

CBC members were tight-lipped over the weekend as smoke started rising from the working-class St. Louis suburb. A joint statement finally emerged Monday from CBC Chair Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., nudging the Justice Department to probe the Michael Brown incident — which it has.

But updates from the OfficialCBC Twitter feed and CBC's website didn't get going until later the same day. Meanwhile, the 600-plus-strong National Black Caucus of State Legislators hasn't yet huddled or issued a statement. But individually, black state legislators, like Missouri Rep. Clem Smith, D-St. Louis, are attempting something.

"The leadership in Ferguson doesn't reflect the racial composition of the city," Smith told The Root. "This is where political power comes in, where we can elect a board that's responsive to black residents' needs."

Expectations differ from political realities. Justice-seeking black constituents demand commando-like advocacy in the form of G.I. Joe-like black politicians ready to battle heavily armed racist institutions.

But it's not that easy. Congressional members, for example, have to fend off existential threats from gerrymandering Republican state legislatures. State and local politicians are forced to forge winning coalitions of voters, including powerful police unions that make influential endorsements.

Democratic-aligned black politicos must also navigate racially charged waters or risk tipping the scales further against their weakened party during elections. White conservative "tough on crime" voters siding with pro-police GOP candidates are clearly more energized than voters of color. Being too strong on police brutality fuels Republican narratives of a "war on whites."

So black politicians are likely doing all they can do — or, at least, all they think they can do. They're monitoring the situation, conducting oversight and putting pressure on government agencies to act. Many modern black politicians are not your neighborhood preacher or soapbox civil-rights organizer. Fifty years since the Voting Rights Act, they are maturing into skilled elected officials who must get re-elected — at whatever political cost.

Charles D. Ellison is Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine.