Members of the Congressional Black Caucus want you to treat black Americans with respect and racially sensitive language. And if you don't, they will scream racial epithets at you.
Just ask Ralph Nader, who was recently lambasted by caucus members following a meeting in which the CBC tried to persuade him not to run in the upcoming presidential election. Nader captured 3 million votes in 2000 and was criticized by some liberal organizations for taking votes away from Al Gore in a tight election.
When Nader refused to acquiesce, caucus member Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.) became irate and, according to Nader, shouted, "You're just another arrogant white man - telling us what we can do - it's all about your ego - another f---ing arrogant white man."
What would happen, I wonder, if a white legislator had been heard shouting, "You're just another stupid black man"? I ask this only to make the following point: Racism is not relative. It is not something that should be denounced selectively. Plainly, all forms of racist language are equally repugnant. It's ironic that the CBC doesn't get that.
That said, the whole story seems a bit contrived. Rep. Watt knew full well that a pack of reporters were huddled outside the meeting room, ears cocked in their direction. Watt shouted loudly enough for the reporters to hear him. The whole things smells like an exercise in racial exhibitionism. Nothing you could say would ever convince me otherwise.
By screaming, "You're just another arrogant white man," Watt is able to corral some press and proclaim to black America that he is fighting for them. This is how people like Watt stay in power - by suggesting to black America that their problems are the result of arrogant white people who lack the ability to empathize with, or even work alongside, black people.
This is a shameful secret shared by many of the old guard black leaders. They swept into power during a time of overt and institutionalized racism. Their galvanizing message was that all the problems confronting blacks were rooted in racism. Despite the immense social change that has occurred since then, they continue to cling to that message, for fear of falling into irrelevancy.
To this day, many members of the CBC depend on the perception of ongoing, widespread racism in order to remain competitive in the electoral process. They underplay the dramatic improvements in economic and social status blacks have experienced over the last 40 years. Large numbers of their constituents - particularly those who came of age during the overt racism of the past half century - continue to believe that the problems confronting the black lower class stem primarily from racism.
In the '60s and '70s this sort of black nationalism was integral to pushing basic civil rights issues into the mainstream. But clinging to that rhetoric turns issues of general welfare - such as housing and school reform - into "black issues." That makes it a lot easier for politicians to marginalize and ignore the problems facing our communities. Yes, racism exists. But continuing to isolate ourselves along the lines of black vs. white leaves us stuck in a dead end.
Herein lies the greatest missed opportunity of the civil rights movement: They never prepared for the day when whites would start treating minorities as equals. Their entire public image - their very legitimacy as political and cultural spokespersons - was predicated on the rhetoric of a black-vs.-white war.
That's what Watt taps into when he calls Ralph Nader "another f---ing arrogant white man." It was pure pseudo event. Ralph Nader is right to want an apology. Of course he'll never get it from politicians who continue to empower themselves by clinging to the rhetoric of race war. This is bad for Watt's constituents. It's bad for civil rights. And it's the dirty little secret shared by several members of the CBC.