The time has come to have a citywide dialogue on race. In these so-called “post racial” times, it is considered taboo to mention race and anyone who does is blasted with the invective that he or she is “playing the race card,” a term that is offensive because it insinuates that racial disparities don’t exist and are a game played by those whose only intention is to “race-bait.” As a result, race becomes the elephant in the room that many know is relevant, but no one dares speak about.
The special election for D.C. At-Large Council member is the latest example of this. A committed, progressive activist was maligned for daring to respond to a question about race without being politically correct enough to carefully parse her words to not really address the question. This activist was educated at the University of California at Berkeley and has a history of being committed to progressive causes, such as civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, workers rights and poverty issues. This committed, progressive activist has been a member of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the District’s largest LGBT political organization, since 1978—only two years after its founding and long before it was popular to be supportive of LGBT rights.
If you heard such a background, most people’s first thought would probably be, “Sounds like your typical Berkeley liberal.” However, for some reason, the candidate that fits this profile, Anita Bonds, was not characterized this way. Rather, despite her long history of being liberal or “progressive” on the issues, not only was she not given the “progressive” title, but she was painted as being anti-progressive, despite all evidence to the contrary.
It’s hard to believe that the reason isn’t because of the package that this particular progressive comes in. In this city, progressive has become code for young and mostly white. While most so-called progressives are open to the idea that someone like me, a well-educated, 30-something, African-American lesbian, could be progressive, most residents did not even open their minds to the possibility that Anita Bonds, a heterosexual, college-educated, African-American grandmother in her late 60s, could be. To many, Anita Bonds’ attributes represent conservative, middle-class, African-American culture, which is assumed to not fit the progressive profile, so she was automatically labeled as non-progressive, with no true attempt to determine if the label fit.
During a candidate forum on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Bonds was posed with a question about whether race was a factor in the campaign and she responded in a manner that addressed the concerns of some residents who fear that their needs may not be adequately addressed if they don’t have somewhat proportionate representation on the Council. That doesn’t mean that those people, or Bonds when speaking of their fears, feel that only African Americans can represent African Americans.
To put it another way, there are two openly gay members of the D.C. Council—David Catania and Jim Graham. If, in 2014, David Catania gives up his seat to run for mayor or attorney general and Jim Graham is defeated in the Ward 1 primary, both very real possibilities, there is a chance that a city as “progressive” as D.C. will not have any LGBT representatives on the Council. If that occurs, we would likely see a movement to find and/or groom an openly LGBT candidate for the following Council race. In fact, if such a scenario were to occur, I could see the Victory Fund, whose mission is to help LGBT candidates get elected, actively working to recruit and train LGBT candidates and this would be a great service to the city. After all, marginalized communities have struggled for visibility and representation and are therefore particularly sensitive to losing that representation.
That is why it was disheartening that when Bonds honestly mentioned this concern when responding to a question addressed to her, instead of trying to understand the concern and getting at the root cause of why some people in this city feel marginalized, she was demonized and cast as a bigot. This rhetoric is not only false, but it’s extremely harmful to the city because we can’t move forward as a united city if we are not willing to listen to others’ perspective. When we silence views that make us uncomfortable and challenge the myth that race is no longer a factor, it actually exacerbates tensions because it causes those who feel marginalized to allow those feelings to fester among themselves.
Many African Americans felt that several white candidates were also playing racial politics by using terms like “progressive” or “reform” that appeal to white voters and expressing concern about splitting votes in the western part of the city among the other “progressive” or “reform” candidates. Thus, both white and African-American candidates realized the sad reality that most of their votes would come from those of the same background.
Bonds had strong multiracial support from people who have worked with her in the past and the same can be said for some of the other candidates. I truly hope that those who did not support Bonds use the next 20 months to learn more about her, and reach out to her office so she can understand their concerns and address their needs. I think they may be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, we should all commit to creating a forum to openly discuss racial divisions, instead of pretending they don’t exist. It’s the only way for us to unite as a city and move forward.
Lateefah Williams is a writer, attorney and community activist in D.C. She is the immediate past president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the District’s largest LGBT political organization. Read her blog at dcprogressivepotpourri.com, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @lateefahwms.