Legislating while black

By Ruth Marcus Published:

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON In the matter of Cynthia McKinney vs. U.S. Capitol Police or, as its shaping up, U.S. Capitol Police vs. Cynthia McKinney I have no brief for the not-so-gentlelady from Georgia. But you dont have to like McKinney or condone her behavior to think that this episode goes deeper than much ado about a hairdo, as McKinney seeks to dismiss it in her latest spin, referring to her new, unbraided look.

The McKinney Incident implicates unpleasant, and for that reason generally unspoken, issues of race and gender; it is not so much about deliberate bias as far more subtle and unconscious forces. All this doesnt excuse McKinney, but it does suggest there is something more complex involved here than is evident from the, well, black-and-white terms in which its been portrayed by both sides.

Even before the latest altercation, McKinney was known accurately as a hotheaded conspiracy theorist inclined to play the race card at the drop of a congressional ID pin. The details of McKinneys run-in with an officer who stopped her as she walked around a security checkpoint arent yet known, but its already obvious that McKinney needs to read All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Congressional Edition, with a focus on: Lets use our words. Or, we dont hit. Especially not with our cellphones. Especially not police officers.

McKinneys response, flinging accusations of racial profiling and inappropriate touching, with its smarmy sexual overtones, was as outrageous as it was predictable. She was, her lawyer said, yet another victim of the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials because of how she looks and the color of her skin. Please, this is not Rodney King Goes to Washington.

And yet, race and, to a lesser extent, gender are unavoidably entwined with the incident. Few of us consider ourselves racist or sexist, but few, if any, of us are immune from seeing things through the prism of race and sex. If McKinney looked like Congressman Bob Forehead tall white man with dark suit and helmet hair would the officer have been more likely to wave her through and less likely to forcibly stop her? Would he have been more likely to recognize her in the first place? To suggest that his reaction might well have been different is not to accuse him of bad motives but to recognize the deeply embedded role that race and gender play in perception and judgment.

Just-retired Capitol Police chief Terrance Gainer dismissed any such possibility, saying that sometimes in the crush of business it doesnt immediately register in the mind-computer that this person is who this is. But Gainers point reinforces the prospect that McKinney was treated differently: the mind-computer isnt pre-programmed to see black woman and think lawmaker. It isnt well-equipped to take black woman with neat, nice-girl braids and translate that to black woman with Jimi Hendrix hair.

In an otherwise critical column about her local congresswoman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker noted that more times than I can count, Ive been mistaken for McKinney, criticized for things she said or given advice about my braids a hairdo Tucker hasnt had since sixth grade. I witnessed a similar episode at The Washington Post when a local politician a liberal Democrat, as it happened called one African-American female reporter by the name of another African-American reporter. These were two women who, other than sharing a skin tone, looked nothing alike.

This could get tiresome which helps explain, if not excuse, McKinneys angry response to the incident. She responds to the merest hint of differential treatment by perceiving insults at every turn, and reacting, loudly. She is, as a 2002 Slate piece put it, The Girl Who Cried Racism, which suggests, correctly, both overuse of the term and occasions when the wolf really is present.

By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the anti-McKinney, with her relentless composure and what Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan describes as her smooth, controlled cap of hair. Rice prefers to ignore the slights that incite McKinney; shed rather deal with racism by proving it wrong twice as good, was the unofficial motto of her Birmingham childhood than by confronting it head-on.

Most of the time. As she described one contrary incident in a 2002 interview with Essence magazine, I was looking at the jewelry, and I asked to see the gold earrings. But the salesclerk kept showing me the costume jewelry. So I said, No, I really want to see the nicer jewelry. When the clerk muttered something rude, Rice said, I said, Lets get one thing clear. If you could afford anything in here, you wouldnt be behind this counter. So I strongly suggest you do your job. Its something that has probably happened to every black person at some point in time. Lesson: The credit card is mightier than the cellphone, but, as Rice has said, The fact of the matter is, race matters in America.

Gender, too. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismisses Rices acknowledgement of tactical mistakes in Iraq as reflecting a lack of understanding ... of what warfare is about. Throw-weights, anyone? I doubt hed be so condescending about a male secretary of state.

McKinney is a flawed messenger of uncomfortable truths. Its worth taking a break from denouncing her behavior to talk about them openly for a change.

2006, The Washington Post

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