Diversity in Politics Should More than Skin Deep

Commentator Deborah Mathis offers her perspective on diversity when it comes to black Republicans in office. Mathis is a syndicated columnist and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It's election season again and a number of black Republicans are vying for public office. Commentator Deborah Mathis wants these politicians to remember the value of African American history and perspective.

DEBORAH MATHIS (syndicated columnist): With each election cycle, the Republican party is making progress as the launch pad of choice for black political candidates. In Maryland, Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele is the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate seat, long held by Democrat Paul Sarbanes who is retiring.

In Pennsylvania, it's football hall of famer, Lynn Swann, who has the Republican nod for governor. In Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is the GOP's gubernatorial candidate. All are black men.

Diversification is a good thing. Competition among buyers is bound to be good for the seller. But what good is diversification if it's only skin deep? If Steele, Swann, and Blackwell only look black and don't remember black - that is, don't bring and black sensibilities, black experience, or black perspective to the party - well, you might as well Al Jolson.

Which brings me to Alfonso Jackson, the secretary of housing and urban development and, as such, one of the highest ranking black Americans in the Bush administration. As my kids used to say, What's his malfunction?

Why does Jackson seem bent on ignoring the needs and concerns of black people, who are disproportionately poor, and therefore make up a large portion of the low income and subsidized housing community over which he lords. And not only that, why does he seem intent on insulting black people? Does Jackson feel no obligation to enlighten his fellow Republicans and fellow administration officials? What is he bringing to the diversity potluck, other than another stew of stereotypes?

Three times now Jackson has managed to publicly encourage bigoted assumptions. A couple of months after Hurricane Katrina, he mused that New Orleans, quote, “is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.” What was the point of that? Whose spirits was that supposed to lift?

More recently, he said, not everyone who used to live in a black public housing complex that was destroyed by the hurricane, would be welcome in a certain New Orleans mixed income housing development. Only the best residents should return, he said.

And then he bragged about rejecting a black federal contractor who had criticized George W. Bush. He didn't get the contract, Jackson told a Texas audience, Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president?

Obviously, it never occurred to Jackson to hear the man out, assess the merits of his objections, and maybe even try to educate the Bush camp as to why the president is so widely unpopular in the black community. He's got the president's ear, after all. But then, speaking truth to power takes more than access and more than courage. It takes, formost, a fondness for truth.

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CHIDEYA: Deborah Mathis is a syndicated columnist. She's also a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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