As both readers of my blog know, I recently concluded that only two candidates for Congress in the 11th CD, David Yassky and Christopher Owens, met the minimum standards to be fit for service, but while I found Yassky more promising, I was reluctant to support him because he is a white candidate in a black majority district. I sort of feel ashamed about this, but my reluctance to support him is a pragmatic judgment, not a moral one.
Yassky's whiteness is going to hang from him like a target and every two years he is going to face another racial crusade. This presents several problems. The first is that it does little for community comity. The ugliness of this race has already been damaging to community relations in Brooklyn, and will become more so as the primary approaches. This animosity is fueled by other candidates (especially Chris Owens), free lance community opportunists, and parasitical institutions of the Fifth Estate like Ed Weintrob’s repulsive collection of Brooklyn Paper rags.
I once was walking on the Promenade when I stepped onto a copy of the Brooklyn Paper. Luckily, there was some dogshit laying around or I’d have had nothing to wipe my shoe with. Ed Weintrob is a racial arsonist willing to thrown gasoline at anyone he thinks might be lighting a cigarette in the near future. Recently, he decided to create a race controversy based on the idea that a music program at a school in Carroll Gardens was there only to serve the white students (the non-white students were deemed to be in need of “basic education”) Mr. Weintrob, have you ever heard of John Coltrane, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Sly Stone, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, or T-Bone Walker? But, Weintrob (and his enforcer, Gersh Kunzman) is far more obsessed with making the Yassky campaign the front page controversy during any week when Bruce Ratner disappoints him by doing nothing outrageous. The more Weintrob and the other racial arsonists say there’s a fire, the more true it becomes. Some of these stories have some basis in fact, although it’s often exaggerated. Other stories are almost out of whole cloth. The fact that Yassky raises more money from white Brownstone areas of the Congressional district than the other areas might be related to the fact he represents those white areas on the City Council. I’ve never seen Weintrob complain that Nydia Velazquez’s money comes from the same people. None of this is necessarily Yassky’s fault, but electing him will certainly bring Brooklyn more of the same, and many would just rather avoid this. Hard to blame them.
There’s a touch of opportunism in Yassky’s candidacy which has echoes elsewhere in his record, and which I intend to explore in more detail at a future date. But, the real ugliness on the race issue has been the good cop/ bad cop game played by Chris Owens. Chris desperately wants Yassky out of the race so he can pick up the lion’s share of the white Brownstone vote. Chris Owens’ usual pose is to stand silent trying to look innocent (but barely suppressing his laughter) while Major pretends to accidentally blurt out the darnedest things; it is easily the most unhealthy father-son realtionship since Nice Guy Eddie in Reservior Dogs. When Major accused Yassky of trying to “colonize” the district, the press missed the point, focusing on the fact that Yassky lived a block and a half outside the district. Nonsense; Tracy Boyland lived outside the district in 2004, and no one cared (not even Major). Major would consider Yassky a colonizer if Yassky lived next door to him. The real fact is that Brownstone Brooklyn has been sliced and diced among three different Congressional districts to render it politically impotent. In every reapportionment since 1980, more and more of the area has been moved into minority districts to boost their population, but only in careful increments to make sure brownstoners can never elect one of their own (ironically, it was these white voters who saved Major’s tail in 2000 and 2004) . Yassky is not a colonizer; Yassky has been colonized. Why should a talented pol unquestionably accept the idea that his skin color, because it differs from that of the majority in a particular political entity, permanently disqualifies him for national office (unless he runs in Staten Island)? Barack Obama never brought that argument, and as a result, he’s a US Senator.
However, electing a white Congressman under such circumstances ensures a member who’s preoccupied with all the wrong things. While all members of Congress must run for re-election, most don't face constant primaries, so they can eventually settle in and actually accomplish something productive. Despite his capabilities, Yassky’s race will likely be a serious impediment to his productiveness. Yes, people like Marty Markowitz survived representing districts far blacker than the 11th. But, they learned to walk the walk. Does anyone really believe that Yassky is ready to stand in front of an all-black crowd wearing an ice cream suit while hosting a gospel concert? I can’t imagine Yassky would find this fun, but the thought of him attempting to fake da funk is hilarious; Yassky's idea of an evening of African-American music is probably a joint bill of Tracy Chapman and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
It is also to be preferred that a member of Congress have some empathy for his constituency. Sad to say, but one has to be black to know what it is like to be black. This can be overcome; one can have empathy for poor and working people by having suffered some level of poverty and/or deprivation. I’m on the record for my less than esteemed opinion of Marty Markowitz, but it cannot be denied that Markowitz, a child of poverty, has no trouble feeling empathy for his African-American constituents despite his melanin deprivation. By contrast, Yassky is a child of pure privilege. He can barely feel empathy for the plight of the Upper-Middle-Class. Can he truly understand where the majority of 11th CD residents are coming from?
Chris Owens is hardly a child of poverty. One look at him makes it quite clear that Owens has never missed a meal, but I'd bet he’s been passed by a taxi while trying to hail a ride. But, his campaign has been trying to have it all ways on race, pretty much telling audiences that his being black makes him more qualified to hold the seat, while running a full page on his website about his red diaper baby Jewish mom, complete with shots of little Chris at a seder. Query: If being black makes Owens more qualified than Yassky, does this mean that Andrews, Clarke and Perry are twice as qualified as Owens? Just asking. However, one cannot call Owens’ pitch race baiting, since he makes the same case in front of white audiences, at least those in the Brownstone belt (I think he may understand that white guilt does not play a big role in the politics of places like Midwood). I think that this pitch may be working on many, and I’m not sure it isn’t haunting the back of my mind.
Yet, Yassky is still the smartest, most knowledgeable, and best on the issues. In a better world that would be game, set and match. But, in a better world we would not be debating the politics of race (and in a much better world, we might not be debating politics at all).