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The Politics of Race

Aug. 7, 2012
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Even though racism remains one of the most intractable social problems in America, the politics of race are rarely discussed out loud.

White politicians who continue to use racism to win elections cloak their appeals in dog-whistle code words. And any black politician who wants to succeed outside a segregated black district has to have interracial appeal.

That's what makes the 10th Assembly District Democratic primary election between state Rep. Sandy Pasch and three African Americans so unusual and so controversial.

State Rep. Beth Coggs, the African-American incumbent in the 10th District now running for state Senate, publicly put racial politics right out on the table.

At a Community Brainstorming political forum, before a majority, but not exclusively, black audience, Coggs said African-American voters in the 10th should "vote for someone who looks like you" or they would set black political representation back decades.

The comment immediately drew shouts of foul from other blacks, including Mandela Barnes, an African-American Assembly candidate in the 11th District. "That's not right!" Barnes interrupted. "That's just wrong!"

Pasch, the only white candidate in the 10th, correctly noted that Coggs was talking about her. Pasch said if everyone in America voted along racial lines as Coggs suggested, Barack Obama would never have been elected president of the United States.

How did Milwaukee-area Democrats, black and white, who agree on most issues end up at each others' throats? The answer is even uglier. The conflict was intentionally created through corrupt gerrymandering by legislative Republicans.

With an unchecked majority, Republican legislators met secretly to manipulate district lines to cripple Democratic representation and elect more Republicans.

They brazenly redistricted Pasch, the assistant Assembly Democratic leader and chair of the Milwaukee Democratic Legislative Caucus, out of her job.

Democratic Shorewood was removed from Pasch's district and placed into Milwaukee's 10th District and overwhelmingly Republican suburban neighborhoods were shifted into Pasch's district.

Pasch is now moving from Whitefish Bay to Shorewood, where she received her strongest support when she ran in a hard-fought recall election to try to unseat right-wing Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling.

Since Coggs decided to run for the state Senate, she and Pasch will not be forced into running head to head. But Coggs and some other black incumbents have endorsed Millie Coby, an African-American candidate from Milwaukee who now lives in Shorewood as well.

Race Does Matter

A lot of good government types rushed to condemn Coggs and claim race shouldn't matter in politics. But, of course, it does.

I admit to a very personal perspective on this subject because I once took a job that a number of African Americans thought should have gone to a black man.

The job wasn't in politics. It was as co-host of the "Morning Magazine" talk show on 1290 WMCS-AM, the community radio station owned by former Green Bay Packer Willie Davis. The station has a large, but not exclusively, African-American audience.

As in elected politics, there are very limited jobs in radio open to African Americans. And on talk radio, unless an African American is willing to adopt a right-wing persona—remember James T. Harris?—on-air positions are nearly nonexistent.

WMCS is the rare exception. So I understood why it was controversial among some in the black community when I got hired, taking one of the few opportunities available to an African American.

But do I still think I should have been hired? I do. And I believe listeners came to agree. Many of them said so.

For four years, with my co-host, Cassandra Cassandra, an African-American woman, we were one of the few radio shows in America providing an interracial dialogue on the political issues affecting all our lives.

That discussion is important to the future of our country. And it can't happen when whites think all blacks are scary criminals and blacks think all whites are vicious Rush Limbaughs.

Obviously, our politics are in dire need of the same sort of enlightened discussion.

In the 10th District, it's understandable that some black elected officials would feel black representation was being lost if a white were elected in what was previously a black district.

That opinion is not universal. State Rep. Tamara Grigsby, an outstanding young black leader not running for re-election because of health problems, endorsed Pasch.

If it weren't for continued racism and hyper-segregation, which blacks and whites fought together in the 1960s, black representatives would not be confined to a few overwhelmingly black districts.

But there are only eight black members now in the 132-seat Legislature. They can't accomplish anything alone. It still takes the strongest possible representatives working together—elected by both blacks and whites—to improve the lives of everyone.

Those who intentionally turn us against each other for their own personal political agenda have never had any interest in the common good.


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