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16th June
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, June 16, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Councilman Albert Vann is playing the race card again in Brooklyn, something he has been doing for 40 years. In the late 1960s, as the head of the African Teachers Association, he crossed swords with UFT President Albert Shanker over community control of the schools, creating a racial schism in Gotham that lingers to this day.

In 1968, the demonstration school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, interpreted community control to mean that teachers should be fired at will by the “community” (and 17 white teachers were). Mr. Shanker and the UFT wouldn’t budge in their resistance to race-based dismissals, resulting in the famous citywide strike that became the defining moment in the city’s race relations for decades.
Then the issue was whether white people can be trusted to teach minority children. Today it is whether a white person can run for Congress in what Mr.Vann terms a “district of color.”

All of this stems from the decision of Rep. Major Owens not to seek another term. This is big news. Members of Congress rarely retire and even less often lose their seats in elections. Often they leave in handcuffs, or are carried out in boxes.

Needless to say, there are a few politicians interested in the job. Councilwoman Yvette Clarke tried to unseat Mr.Owens in 2004 and lost.With the seat now vacant, she is trying again.Trouble is that she isn’t the only hopeful in the race. Assemblyman N. Nick Perry has already dropped out, but State Senator Carl Andrews,Mr.Owens’s son Chris, and Councilman David Yassky also covet the seat.

Mr. Yassky’s presence in the race has caused a problem for some black politicians.They view this as a “black” seat, and Mr.Yassky is, inconveniently, white.

The district, at least at last count was nearly 60% black and 12% Hispanic. Only a bit more than 20% were classified as white. But Mr.Yassky sees something happening in Brooklyn, an unprecedented trend toward gentrification that is making this district less “colorful” by the day. So Mr. Yassky has thrown his hat in the ring and raised more money than any of his opponents. Conventional wisdom holds that Mr. Yassky could win, but only if the black vote is divided among multiple candidates.

So Mr.Vann convened a meeting on Monday of the city’s minority political leadership to try and get two of the black contenders to withdraw.When ego trumped strategy, Mr.Vann decided instead to ask the Democratic Party chiefs, all the way up to Howard Dean, to force Mr. Yassky from the race. The party bosses, predictably, wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole. So Mr.Vann and company have turned to someone who has no such restraints, the Reverend Al Sharpton.

On Saturday, Rev. Sharpton will be the keynote at the Black Brooklyn Empowerment Convention, and call for unity behind one candidate. This may be a defining moment for Rev. Sharpton, a conversion from racial provocateur to political boss. Presumably, it will be Rev. Sharpton who will choose among the three hopefuls. My suspicion is that his phone is ringing off the hook as candidates and their supporters petition for his endorsement.

Perhaps it would be a sign of maturity if district residents were to look beyond race and simply select the most promising of the hopefuls, regardless of skin color.Voters are smart. If race is the top factor to black voters, one of the three black candidates is likely to emerge as Mr. Yassky’s strongest opponent without any help from Rev. Sharpton. Nor should it be assumed that all white voters will mindlessly pull the Yassky lever. After all, 17 years ago, a substantial number of white voters put their trust in the mayoral candidacy of David Dinkins.

Could it be that what may be a diminishing number of black voters in the 11th District would be better served by the white Councilman? To Mr. Vann and others to whom race is paramount, that is a heretical notion. But the three remaining black candidates may be less promising than Mr.Yassky. Ms. Clarke has already been rejected by the voters for this seat and has raised little money. The extent of the younger Mr.Owens’s experience is a stint on the local Community School Board. And Mr. Andrews carries a bit of baggage as an ally of disgraced Brooklyn Democratic chief Clarence Norman.

Concentration on race has not served black Americans well. Demands in the Voting Rights Act to try to ensure the outcome of political races may have elected more black members of Congress, but the law has also aided Republicans in assuming control of the House.Which has its own unintended consequences, denying long-serving black congressmen — like, say, Charles Rangel — the power that would be theirs had the party not lost the leadership on the Hill. But as Democrats insisted on more minority districts, the result was that reliably Republican constituencies were also created. If all of the blacks are safely concentrated, legally, in their own electoral ghettoes, it makes it that much easier for Republicans to ignore them,which is its own kind of tragedy in the struggle for civil rights in America.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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