For decades, it was presumed that having blacks in positions of political leadership on the local, state and national levels would serve as a safeguard to preserve the victories of the civil rights movement and ensure that the people on whose behalf those battles had been fought could benefit from the new opportunities that those victories afforded. But in time, just the opposite has happened. In an era where race has begun to serve as both a shield (rebuffing legitimate criticism as evidence of racism) and a sword (attacking dissenting opinions as racist) many black officials have entered zones of comfort insulated from responsibility. In many cities, monopolies of opportunist leadership have reigned unchallenged for decades.
A case in point is that of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who, along with his cronies, was indicted on 38 charges, in what a federal prosecutor described as a “pattern of extortion, bribery and fraud” by some of Detroit’s most prominent officials. Charges in the indictment include extortion, mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, malicious threats to extort money, and bribery.
The accusations against Kilpatrick were described in detail by Walter Russell Mead, editor of The American Interest. He reports that the mayor and the friends he recruited to serve his administration looted millions from the government coffers and accepted bribes in the form of trips on chartered jets, golf outings, and massages. The same real-estate firm that paid these bribes also used Detroit pension funds to buy out-of-state strip malls that cost the fund $3.1 million. The property titles were never transferred to the pension fund. According to a Detroit Free Press investigation, throughout the years, corrupt and incompetent trustees appointed by the Detroit Democratic officials racked up nearly a half-billion dollars in failed investments of the pension fund, on which many low- and middle-income city employees were relying for their retirement income.
The opportunists’ devastation of Detroit is not an anomaly. Black-on-black crime in the suites has become as common place as black-on-black crime on the streets. It is so commonplace that the public has become numb to its existence.
Recently, a former District councilman Harry Thomas, Jr., conspired with others to redirect $300,000 intended to purchase sports equipment for low-income kids. The money instead, was used to purchase such luxuries as a $69,000 SUV, Pebble Beach, Calif., golf outings, and designer clothes. When Thomas’ attorney tried to use his years of service to the community as a mitigating factor in order to lighten his sentence, the prosecutor correctly observed that his public service was, in fact, related to his crime and was designed to mask his real intention - satisfying his greed. Thomas was sentenced to 38 months in prison.
Just a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital, in Prince George’s County, a former county executive, Jack Johnson, and his wife drew prison terms for accepting bribes for directing county contracts to friends and acquaintances, regardless of the impact this had on the people to be served. During Johnson’s entire eight years in office, the pair treated the county treasury like their own personal piggy bank.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina that laid Ward 9 of New Orleans to waste, it was discovered that former Rep. William Jefferson was hiding bribe money in his freezer. Nine members of Jefferson’s family serving in various positions in the Louisiana government were also indicted on corruption charges. In one instance, a half million dollars in grants intended for programs to help pregnant black teens was diverted for the personal use of members of the Jefferson clan.
This graft and corruption continues and mounts, with little public outcry. For example, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus diverted college scholarship money that was intended for low-income needy constituents: the scholarships went, instead, to their own grandchildren and the children of congressional staff members, some of whom did not even live in their districts.
We know that when parents practice illicit or immoral behavior, it has a detrimental effect on children. Government officials who are given the public trust are in similar positions as role models. Today, corruption in the suites may even exacerbate the incidence of violence among youths in urban centers that are devoid of a model of moral and ethical behavior. In addition, while some black officials are preoccupied with lining their own pockets and keeping the issue of racism at the center of public attention, they are ignoring the steadily rising crisis of gang violence and black-on-black warfare in the nation’s cities. Just weeks after Trayvon Martin’s killing, in the course of just one weekend, Chicago was the site of 40 black-on-black shootings, seven of which were fatal. There was a stunning silence among black spokesmen and public officials on this tragedy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the highest form of maturity is the ability to be self-critical. Black America needs to be self-critical now more than at any other time in its history. Rather than calling the Tea Party racist, maybe they should copy the essence of the Tea Party movement, generating a call for cleansing and renewal inside the Democratic Party as the Tea Party has within the Republican Party. The black community has to start challenging those leaders who use race as a means of deflecting attention away from their corrupt, immoral, and incompetent actions.
The call for reform and revitalization of a commitment to those among us who have the least can only come from within the black community. Those on the outside who toe the line of political correctness are afraid to raise their voices, and, if criticism is raised from others on the outside, it can be dismissed as racism. The most powerful vehicle for revitalization is the voice of the constituents in whose name entrenched opportunist public figures were elected to office.
Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.