Questions regarding racial politics have plagued Mayor Anthony Williams since the day he entered office, and he continues to face the question the Washington Post asked at the beginning of his administration: Is he black enough? To some extent, Williams is not to blame for dealing with this issue. He stepped into a culture of politics that had been molded around Marion Barry over the last two decades. During that era, journalists and politicians alike examined every issue through a racial prism, as was Barry’s style. No one man can change that system, Williams included. But at the same time, Williams refuses to assert himself as his own man and thus stands at the mercy of his critics, who decry him as not “black enough,” or as pandering to Northwest.
Williams’ refusal to take a decisive stand for a top aide who had used the word “niggardly” was almost comical and his equivocation during the controversy that followed tarnished his carefully cultivated image of Anthony Williams, the bow-tie wearing anti-politician. More recently, revelations that numerous posts in the Williams administration have remained empty as the Mayor protracts his quest to find qualified minority candidates emphasize the lack of conviction that has characterized Williams’ tenure. While this cause, to form a group of administrators more reflective of the city they serve, is noble, it is but another example of Williams operating from a Barry-era paradigm of politics. He was not an elected mayor because of his rhetorical skills or his leadership bona fides. He won overwhelming victory because of his reputation as an able administrator. The citizens of the District were, and continue to be, more concerned with reliable trash pick-ups than the racial makeup of the Williams administration.
Recent census data indicate that a period of “black flight” has begun, with the percentage of blacks as a whole of the District population declining from 71 percent to 61 percent. Racial politics are again rising to the forefront of the local stage, as some are beginning to question how this demographic trend will affect the “Chocolate City.” Williams seems to have incorrectly assumed that he needs to study the model of Marion Barry to learn how to properly respond to the issues. He would be better off to learn from the man who he shared the stage with at the University of the District of Columbia the other day, former President Bill Clinton. Clinton has always been popular in the District, just as popular as Barry was. He achieved that popularity both through personal charisma and a set of policies that won favor in the black community without alienating other communities in the city.
While certainly Williams could stand to learn a lesson or two in charisma, he could also learn from Clinton that one does not need to necessarily choose to be a “black” or “white” politician in order to be popular.