Friday, August 05, 2005

Black Eye in the Big Easy

The recent FBI house raids of eight-term Black Congressman William J. Jefferson (D-LA) not only puts a troubling blemish on the quiet, yet successful political career of Louisiana's first Black Congressional member since Reconstruction, but it sheds light on the state of the 2nd District he represents. Predictably, most political observers will point to the intrinsically corrupt and free-wheeling nature of Louisiana politics - but, few will talk about its chronic poverty rate, consistently ranked among the highest in the U.S., particularly in New Orleans where Jefferson's seat is located. Louisiana's poverty rate is 19.2% - the second highest in the nation and first in the South.

In Jefferson's heavily African American District 2 (64.1%), the poverty rate for all ages is 26.8% according to the last Census. Whereas 26% of Louisiana's children live in poverty, 38.2% of children under age 18 live below the poverty level. Ironically, Jefferson is a member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee. Going to Jefferson's website, splendid with mentions of Mardi Gras, jazz and fortune tellers, you get little sense that many of the people living there are ridiculously poor.

We mention this because a pattern is identified. It is the irony of Black elected officials - from the Mayors of Philadelphia and Detroit; to members of the Tennessee House and Senate; to Members of Congress in Louisiana, California & Mississippi - being investigated for abuse of power and money while representing poverty stricken states, cities and Congressional districts where Black constituents suffer from serious economic deprivation.

Much is said about the fact that Black elected officials have always been under the heavy hand and watchful eye of law enforcement. It is sadly accepted that they suffer a scrutiny far greater than their White counterparts - and it's almost always dealing with money (which will lead us into another conversation on the myths and truths of Black financial habits). Federal investigators raid Jefferson's homes to pick apart the story of allegedly illegal fundraising activities for his State Rep. daughter - but how aggressive are homes, offices and colleagues raided in the cases of House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX) or the recently embattled Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA)? Jefferson is on the edge of political oblivion and personal turmoil for something relatively trivial compared to the criminal passage of the wasteful, pork-ridden, six-year $286.4 billion transportation bill. Perhaps the FBI should raid Capitol Hill ...

African American politicians - like Jefferson - are aware of the importance of minding their p's and q's while holding office. Which is why it's possible Jefferson or the Black political machine in Louisiana and beyond may claim racism. But, there is a painful discussion not taking place regarding constantly re-elected and many times investigated, embattled and controversial Black elected officials who have trouble addressing the poverty plaguing communities they represent.