The Anatomy of a Redemptive Politician

Post-1965 society assumed that the United States had entered into a “post-racial era,” where racism could no longer oppress segments of society because the segregationist regime that had once legitimized it had finally been outlawed.  In our nation’s attempt to run as far away from our ugly past as possible, we turned a blind eye to the reality that racism is a mentality independent of the laws that sanctioned it.  As our post-racial rhetoric developed, the nation neglected to address the belief system that remained in the minds of those who remained in power.  Racism continued in a veiled yet more insidious form due to the need to distance itself from the violent images of white supremacy that were once socially acceptable.  Using the socio-economic identifiers cemented by the segregationist laws that had previously been repealed, policies like the Crime Bill, War on Drugs, gerrymandering, stop-and-frisk, redlining, inferior schools, and cultural erasures, successfully targeted minorities in ways that have now forced America to unpack the deeper meaning of racism and systemic oppression.

The new generations are now rejecting the nation’s claim of reform and have begun to identify the policies that stink of the vestiges of pre-1965 Jim Crow.  Yet, identifying the politicians that have a genuine interest in undoing decades of covert oppressive policies is difficult.  Let’s face it, there have been few instances in this nation’s history where seemingly enlightened policies were not accompanied by an ulterior motive.  President Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and the Emancipation Proclamation was just as much a military policy as it was a step toward freedom (because it didn’t actually free all of the slaves).  Ironically, it’s the politicians that tout campaigns dedicated to redeeming the flaws in our legal system that we ironically struggle to accept.  We critically analyze politicians to determine if their too-good-to-be-true rhetoric is just an opportunistic ploy to gain political momentum.  However across-the-aisle commentary suggests that there are certain characteristics that society looks for as qualifying a politician to run a redemption politics campaign.

Capable of openly discussing their political track record, no matter how bad it may be.

We don’t want an “Evolved Denier” – one who calls for equality and justice, but denies that they once supported post-racial oppressive legislation.  C.P. Ellis (a once Exalted Cyclops of the KKK turned civil rights activist) said it best: “You don’t make those changes without having to pay for them.”  It is important for politicians to admit that they were once on the wrong side history; not for the sake of embarrassment but to prove that they are not afraid to call out the wrongs of the party that they once supported or still currently support.  A failure to admit their track record raises questions about their understanding of the policies that they previously endorsed and their ability dissect the intricacies of undercover prejudicial policies.

Their personal reform informs their politic strategies.

It’s one thing for a politician to openly admit that he (or she) has benefitted from his (or her) white privilege.  However, pointing out the elephant in the room, when YOU ARE the elephant, is not enough.  The last thing this nation needs is an “Inchoate Do-Gooder” – someone that prevents their personal enlightenment from meaningfully translating into their political strategies.  This is the equivalent of the person who would vote yes on the Crime Bill, but visits the incarcerated as a volunteer.  Or, in its most crass form, points to their black and brown friends as evidence that they could not possibly support legislation that would hurt minorities.  The danger of this type of politician is that while he (or she) may criticize racist rhetoric, he (or she) demonstrates cognitive dissonance with respect to less obvious biases and an inability to unpack more complicated institutionalized problems.  A politician that both personally and politically reforms, demonstrates the courage necessary to confront others’ political inertia. If that’s not the case, the Inchoate Do-Gooder is just as opportunistic as Trump.

They don’t lambast others for their lack of progress/impact.

While we may believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice—it is a LONG arc.  And so, a politician seeking change cannot, and should not attack those who have tried and are still striving for political reform alongside them.  Especially if the politician is critical of another’s lack of success (in spite of their genuine investment), the attacks reveal a lack of understanding of the tenacity that is required for civil rights reform.  It is especially distasteful because it creates unnecessary infighting in a group whose success is typically dependent on solidarity.

If they are a minority, they must be able to overcome the “Professional Catch-22”.

Minorities, whether intentional or not, experience a pressure to work 10 times harder to prove they are just as capable as their white counterparts.  This particular fact has reared its ugly head in the current presidential race as the public becomes hyper-critical of President Obama’s and Senator Kamala Harris’s professional pasts.  Even though President Obama spent his life in public service and dedicated years to community organizing, his supporters still criticize him for not doing more for his community.  Senator Kamala Harris has also received blowback for her service as California’s Attorney General, despite the historical importance for having sat in that seat, and the calls for more people of color in prosecutorial positions.  Minorities who strive to be politicians—whether they answer the call to diversify a white washed industry or dedicate their lives to public service jobs before turning to politics—will always be criticized as not having done enough.  Despite the irony, politicians of color need to be prepared to stand confidently when society uses the color of their skin to both question their sincerity and political acumen.

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While questioning is necessary to uphold the call of redemptive politics, as the public we have to take care that our questioning does not turn into ad hominem attacks.  Personal attacks make it about the drama of the dialogue, distracting from the issues that need careful analysis and attention.  Now with the wave of leaders, weeding-out the true redemption politicians has become more important than ever.  What are qualities and/or characteristics that you look for in redemption politicians?