Rep. Charles Rangel, D- NY, is now in the record books as the first member of Congress to be censured in nearly 30 years. While the punishment was overkill, somehow Black politicians must know by now that Blacks can't get away with the same misdeeds that can be normal for their White colleagues.
Despite talk of a post-racial society Black politicians still operate under a double- standard that means they had better fly right or not at all. History shows that if Black leaders are establishment puppets like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the White power system will protect them, but if they are strategic to Black progress, they are watched, targeted, and sometimes destroyed. Slipups or mistakes that might be forgiven if only the wrongdoers were White become virtually hanging offenses.
In the history of the Congress, 31 members have been censured, 22 in the House and nine in the Senate. Rangel's conduct does not measure up to the immoral and unethical conduct of the White congressmen who preceded him in infamy.
In 1983, U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts was censured for having sex with a male teenage page. In 1990 U.S. Sen. Daniel Durenberger of Minnesota was censured for the unethical practice of converting campaign contributions to personal use.
The Ethics Committee found that Rangel's ethical violations were the result of sloppy record-keeping and that they did not result in personal financial gain and there was no evidence of corruption.
So if the House were not playing by the rule of "different strokes for different folks," either the case would have been dismissed or a reprimand would have been in order. Censure, the next step to expulsion, was much too harsh.
One of Rangel's biggest violations was his failure to pay some back taxes until the ethics committee got win of it. Yet when it was disclosed during confirmation hearings that Timothy Geithner did not pay $34,000 in taxes while heading the International Monetary Fund, this misconduct was dismissed as "an honest mistake," and he went on to become Treasury Secretary whose job includes ensuring citizens pay their taxes.
When are progressive Black leaders going to learn that they can't play by the same rules of their White colleagues and think they will be treated fairly?
A larger question is why didn't Rangel learn from the 1970 ethics quandary that brought down civil rights legend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.? Rangel, who was then a young rising star state legislator, used Powell's ethical problems against him in his campaign to successfully unseat Powell.
Powell was knee-deep in reported ethics violations, which included taking trips abroad with public money and having his third wife, Yvette Diago, on his congressional payroll with no evidence she was earning her keep.
Tragically Powell and Rangel share other bitter ironies. Under pressure Rangel recently stepped down from chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing committee of the House. It was the first time a Black person had risen to that level of power in the House.
In 1967, Powell was stripped of the chairmanship of the powerful Education and Labor Committee, where he had soared as one of the chief architects of social legislation in the nation. He was also instrumental in passing legislation that made lynching a federal crime, as well as bills that desegregated public schools
Following a Judiciary Committee Investigation, the full House refused to seat Powell. Powell fought the exclusion through the courts and in June 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Powell had to be seated because the House had acted unconstitutionally, a move that was blocked because of Rangel's successful electon win.
As Rangel was being censured, heads were also spinning in Prince George's County, Maryland, where two Black elected officials, outgoing Chief Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, who was recently elected to the county council, were arrested on numerous federal corruption charges. When arrested Mrs. Johnson was reported to have nearly $80,000 hidden in her bra.
Johnson is another politician who had won respect for his work in developing the county, which prides itself in being the wealthiest prominently Black county in the nation. Yet, the county also had a reputation that in order to get contracts, people had to "pay to play." That system may have worked for Johnson's White predecessors, but it is may prove his undoing.
Maybe some day, progressive Black politicians can take stock of their true value, which far exceeds personal reputations. When they fall, opportunities for their constituents decrease, as well as collective pride.
All politicians are not created equal.