Last week, I found myself speaking about Rep. Charlie Rangel more than ever before. In case you haven't noticed, the future of the seasoned lawmaker has come into question in light of investigations alleging him to be involved in a slew of ethical violations. Sunday, I had a conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson on the air regarding exactly what's going on with Rangel and his political career. Then Monday, Rev. Al Sharpton and I talked about the broader scenario as it relates to black lawmakers. Just when I thought we were done speaking about investigations against black people in Congress, the conversation turned toward Maxine Waters and the long list of CBC members currently being investigated.
Defending (or not defending) one black lawmaker after another led me to a moment of pause, where I asked the question that's been asked before, but perhaps not vocally enough: Why are so many black lawmakers being targeted for investigations anyway? According to the late Ron Walters, the most respected black political scientist in the country, "it is curious ... that in over 30 of the probes the new Office of Congressional Ethics was considering, the only active investigations were on black Congresspersons."
The Office of Congressional Ethics is turning heads of those who wonder if there is a racial dimension to the attacks. Whether they wish to acknowledge the possibility that their attacks are racially-motivated, it may be the case that economic and political disparities which relate to race may be the cause of these outcomes. In other words, black people have less money and power than whites, and we know that money and power plays a crucial role in legal and political systems at every level.
Dr. Wilmer Leon, a Political Science Professor at Howard University and host of the show, "On with Leon" on Siriux/XM Satellite, had this to say: "The OCE receives information of congressional wrongdoing, investigates, and refers those cases where 'probable cause' is found to the House Ethics Committee for formal proceedings and charges. Unfortunately, based upon who is making the initial allegations and who is being formerly investigated, right may be right but wrong appears to be discretionary (or left up to interpretation)."
What appears to be happening here is that there may be special interest groups behaving like the nosy old lady down the street with a vindetta, who calls the police on you every other night. Similar to the case of Shirley Sherrod, insidious elements of the Right Wing may be at work and reporting one black lawmaker after another.
As mentioned earlier, money and power may play a role. Reps. Jane Harmon and the late John Murtha were also under investigation, but the Office of Congressional Ethics chose not to pursue their cases for reasons that were not disclosed. "...if you have the money of Jane Harmon or the power of [the late] John Murtha, very little will happen to you," said Walters."
At the end of the day, I am firmly convinced that a close enough microscope on nearly any lawmaker would reveal something to make them look bad to the public. Rangel and Waters are supported in their districts because a substantial proportion of their constituents feel that they've served them well. I, like many others, are concerned about the fact that a committee can release allegations to the public, thus smearing the reputation of the lawmaker before they've been granted a proper trial.
If you are somehow convinced that race has nothing to do with the outcomes and that the OCE is benign in its intentions, consider this. Given that the Congressional Black Caucus is roughly 10% of the Congressional body, then a random sample would conclude that CBC members should represent 10% of the lawmakers under investigation at any given time. So, the rough probability of having eight cases open and all of them be members of the CBC is less than .1%. This example implies that there is probably something going on under the surface: either black lawmakers are especially and uniquely corrupt (not likely, since there are corrupt officials of every ethnicity), or there's racial bias in how cases are reported and pursued. Given America's tattered racial history, you can bet your last dollar that racial inequality is the demon.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.