Jonetta Rose Barras: White-black political prison

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,Race and Diversity

Oh, let's nip it right now.

Tommy Wells isn't running to be the city's first white mayor. If Jack Evans or David Catania jumps in the race, as has been predicted, they won't be vying to be the District's chief executive based on the color of their skin either.

When a candidate plays the race card, the media go berserk. Yet, some in the media already have begun injecting skin color into the mayoral race, misdirecting a serious conversation about a candidate's qualifications, vision for the District and ability to lead.

Skin talk is old. Remember when Toni Morrison, speaking metaphorically, identified William Jefferson Clinton as the country's first black president? Some people called Anthony A. Williams the District's first white mayor.

Williams' style, sensibility and governing approach did not hew to the historical black political model. Still, he did more for poor and working-class African-Americans than Marion Barry or Sharon Pratt (Kelly). Williams built thousands of affordable housing units; elevated the conversation about education reform and school choice; launched the first round of recreation center renovations and school modernizations; and placed the city on solid financial footing.

Arguably, Williams was the city's best mayor. His achievements were not the product of skin color but vision and competence.

Race may not be irrelevant, but as we move deeper into the 21st century, and in the wake of a twice-elected African-American president, it's becoming less relevant -- neither albatross nor vehicle for unearned aggrandizement.

The D.C. mayor's office isn't some kind of entitlement program, set aside only for African-Americans. Whites have the right to compete and be judged by the content of their character. Over the years, several have run citywide and won, including David Clarke, Catania and moderate Republican Carol Schwartz. Phil Mendelson, current council chairman, has been re-elected multiple times.

Clearly, black folks aren't opposed to electing white politicians. And whites in the District never have been averse to electing black candidates -- ask Barry, Williams or Adrian M. Fenty.

Wells previously was elected school board member, representing both Ward 6 and predominantly African-American Ward 5. Black, white and Hispanic residents recently returned Muriel Bowser to her Ward 4 seat on the council.

Not unlike the story of America, the District's racial, cultural and political narrative always has been complex. It has been filled with whites and blacks -- and later Latinos -- working together, striving to advance a nondiscriminatory society for all citizens. Rather than acknowledge such complexity, some would rather cast the 2014 mayoral campaign as one of white versus black.

The District's future contains significant challenges. Among other things, they include creation of an ethical and transparent government, development of a diverse and vibrant private-sector economy, accommodation of a growing population and the successful reform of its public education system, ensuring more citizens can participate during the next 10 and 20 years in the riches of the city's indisputable renaissance.

Fixation on skin color won't help reveal a candidate's vision for responding to those and other challenges. That's for sure.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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