Shall We Overcome?

At a time of unprecedented national pride and renewal, as we approach the inauguration of America’s first nonwhite president, it’s hard to imagine anything more squalid than the behavior of the president-elect’s home-state governor, Rod Blagojovich of Illinois, who was arrested Nov. 12th on charges of conspiring to sell Mr. Obama’s own seat in the U.S. Senate. Nothing could be more distracting or at odds with the spirit of the moment. Or so it seemed.  

Gov. Blagojovich will of course have the day in court to which he is entitled — followed, most likely, by many years of incarceration. But from the standpoint of racial harmony and conciliation, which is a key subtext of the past election, the present time, and the coming administration, I would single out another chapter of this story for its inappropriateness: something less despicable than what Gov. Blagojovich allegedly did, but in a way, more depressing. That is the reaction of some African-American leaders in Illinois and in Congress, to the Governor’s nomination of a distinguished black politician, Roland Burris, to fill Obama’s Senate seat.

Blagojovich remains governor as of this writing, with the powers pertaining to that office. He himself claims to have a legal duty to fill the seat; duty or not, his nomination of Burris is perfectly legal.

The problem is that the governor is so deeply compromised, not just by the charges pending against him but by the nationally-publicized recordings of some particularly damning evidence for those charges, that any act he performs in his remaining time as governor bears the taint of corruption. 

Obviously the governor, like anyone else, is innocent from a legal standpoint until proven guilty. But not so in the court of public opinion; as citizens, rather than judges, jurors or prosecutors, we are entitled and perhaps even obligated to assess the governor by a different standard. His recorded comments about filling the Senate seat amply show a gross lack of moral character — to put it mildly. 

Barring a court ruling to the contrary, Democratic leaders in the Senate are right, on ethical grounds,  to insist on not seating any candidate nominated by this governor. The Senate deserves a new member free from such taint, and the people of Illinois deserve such a senator. 

Mr. Burris should have refused the nomination, as Rep. Danny Davis did.  And it is unseemly for  his supporters (including Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush, and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters) to profess outrage at the Democratic leadership for not wishing to seat him.  

As an observer of this morality play (my own governor resigned in disgrace less than a year ago; his worst crime was hypocrisy) I find it bizarre and saddening that some black leaders in Illinois and elsewhere not only support the governor’s move to elevate Mr. Burris (who is by all accounts a worthy public servant) but cry racial foul when others seek to block the nomination in order to limit the damage by Blagojovich.

To claim that this nomination is being blocked on racial grounds, in light of the events in Illinois, is preposterous. It seems even more absurd coming just weeks before another black politician from Illinois is due to be sworn in as president of the United States.  It not only denies and demans the implications of that event; it embarrasses the president-elect (who properly sided with his former Senate collegues). It ignores  the strong moral case against letting any nomination by Gov. Blagojovich to go forward. And it virtually implies that any grounds for selecting a senator other than his or her being black are racist. That is itself a form of racism.

Most African-Americans realize that Mr. Obama was elected (among other reasons) because he was able to win many white votes. They see 2008 as a triumph over racism, not just a triumph of race. No one suggests that Obama’s election signals an end to racism in the United States. It is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is, as Churchill said in another context, the end of the beginning.  Millions of us worked to make it happen. 

Choosing this particular moment of racial transcendence to accuse white politicians of racism in the matter of the Obama senate seat suggests that, however justly aggrieved for past racial oppression, some African-American leaders, many other Americans, still have a lot of thinking to do about the proper role of race in our political discourse. It implies that we never can, or should, consider higher principles than the advancement of particular politicians because of their color. It is a stunningly inappropriate statement as our wintry and beleaguered country prepares to celebrate a new moral spring. 

Originally posted on