Black Officials More Likely Probed For Corruption?

In Rumor, Repression and Racial Politics, author George Derek Musgrove looks at the history of black elected officials being investigated for alleged wrongdoing. He examines the role of race in U.S. politics between 1965 and 1995. Musgrove shares his research with guest host Maria Hinojosa.

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

Some supporters of Vincent Gray have said that the investigation of his campaign is, in part, driven by race. The book, "Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics," explores the history of investigations of black elected officials in the post-Civil Rights Era.

Author George Derek Musgrove is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and he joined us to talk about the book earlier this week.

Welcome to the program.

GEORGE DEREK MUSGROVE: Thank you so much for having me.

HINOJOSA: This is such a kind of specific topic, looking at whether or not black politicians have been targeted. You wanted to do kind of the definitive work, take it beyond the talk and do the research work behind it. Why?

MUSGROVE: Well, you know, when I sat down to a study of post-Civil Rights Era black politics when I first entered graduate school, I was interested in figuring out what happened when all the marching stopped, you know, what happened when black folks shifted from protests to politics. And as I was going through a bunch of records, I just kept finding black elected officials claiming that the government and the news media was out to get them, that there was literally a conspiracy to undermine black leadership.

And so I wanted to look into it. I wanted to understand if, in fact, this was going on. But more than figure out whether or not there was a conspiracy or there was a pattern, I just wanted to figure out what it meant that black folks believed this, even if it wasn't true. And so the book is a product of trying to answer those two questions.

HINOJOSA: All right. So was there, is there a conspiracy?

MUSGROVE: No. There are patterns of disproportionate targeting that stretch roughly from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. There's also been a recent pattern in the last three years with ethics investigations of members of Congress, but there is no organized conspiracy. No.

HINOJOSA: You talk, though, about an ideology and I find the name of it really fascinating. Harassment ideology...

MUSGROVE: Yes.

HINOJOSA: ...as it applies to black politicians. So define what harassment ideology is and how it does, in fact - if you believe it - apply to these politicians.

MUSGROVE: Sure. Harassment ideology is a set of ideas that black elected officials and some of their defenders created in the mid-1970s to just and figure out what in the world was happening to their ranks. Large numbers of them were being investigated and when I say large numbers, I mean, in 1971, every single member of the Congressional Black Caucus was under investigation by the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service.

HINOJOSA: Every single member?

MUSGROVE: Every single one.

HINOJOSA: Wow.

MUSGROVE: Plus the IRS or the Nixon White House. And so, when they tried to figure out what in the world was happening, they came up with this idea of harassment ideology. And it's basically the notion that the government and the news media have an adversarial relationship toward black elected officials, usually expressed through repression of some sort.

HINOJOSA: And so is it true? Is there, in fact, this relationship?

MUSGROVE: There's not. It's much more complex, I would argue, than that. What you see happening throughout the post-Civil Rights period is that different currents wash across U.S. politics. For instance, in 1960s and 1970s, huge numbers of protesters, anti-war protesters, African-American activists, women's rights activists are being placed under surveillance or targeted for counter-intelligence by the government.

Black elected officials who were attempting to speak for all of those constituencies get swept up in that surveillance and counter-intelligence, and that's why you see those numbers that I just mentioned a moment ago.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the book, "Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics," with author George Derek Musgrove.

But, George, the reality is that not all of the officials that you wrote about were not without fault. Clearly, one that stands out is former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. He was convicted in 1990 following, clearly, an FBI sting in which he was famously filmed smoking crack. How does this case fit into your story?

MUSGROVE: Sure. The Barry case is a fascinating one. I should point out before I get into it that my interest is in the level of disproportionality. In other words, that black elected officials are disproportionately investigated. And so I look at people who are both innocent and who may very well be guilty based on the facts that come out of the case.

HINOJOSA: And you're basically saying, look, people have to be invest - you're not saying they shouldn't be investigated.

MUSGROVE: No. I'm saying that all elected officials absolutely should be investigated if there's reason to investigate them. In the Barry case I use in the book is an example of a case where a black elected official who really is guilty of what they're charged - I mean, even Barry didn't deny that he had a serious substance abuse addiction - can use African-Americans' fear that the government is out to get them to beat a case. And he, essentially, is able to beat the case.

HINOJOSA: You talk about black politicians as kind of being the canaries in the mine, sort of like, if you can do this to a black politician and get away with it, it opens the door for this happening to other politicians. Is that what you're trying to say with this canary in the mine?

MUSGROVE: Roughly, yes. What I see here is that many of the currents that sweep across U.S. politics in the post-Civil Rights period have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans and so African-American elected officials tend to notice them earlier than other elected officials. And they effect other elected officials as well, but not usually as early and not as disproportionately. And so you see black elected officials essentially alerting the larger body politic to these problems, whether it be the growth of the surveillance state in the 1960s and '70s or the official corruption crackdown in the 1980s, which captures people like Marion Barry.

But many elected officials, black and white, are saying it's a little bit out of control, and so they're able to say to the larger body politic, look, this is a problem. We need to deal with this. It might not be working the way that everyone intended it to.

HINOJOSA: So let's just finish here in terms of reality and perception.

MUSGROVE: Sure.

HINOJOSA: You say that, in the African-American community, there is a perception of this kind of harassment. In the end, are we left after reading your book, with a sense that it's a perception or it is definitely real?

MUSGROVE: Both. There's a perception based on a very specific reality. Black elected officials during the post-Civil Rights period are disproportionately investigated based on their numbers and the number of investigations that I've been able to look at. That doesn't necessarily mean, then, that every single black elected official who's investigated for a crime is not guilty, is being set up. By no means am I making that case, but the numbers are off. Many African-Americans see that and say, look. Something's wrong here.

That perception basically dies down in the mid-'90s when the disproportionality that we've seen throughout the post-Civil Rights period dies down. But it can always creep back up because people remember that history.

HINOJOSA: George Derek Musgrove is the author of the book, "Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics." He joined us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.

George, thanks for stopping by.

MUSGROVE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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