I ended my last commentary with a question: Are African-American politicians, as opposed to African-American elected officials, the answer?
No, they're not.
While having African-American elected officials evolve into politicians would be an important upgrade, it's necessary but insufficient to address the bankrupt public policies that habitually underserve the African-American community.
The African-American community is victimized by what I call the fallacy of the politics of melanin. We regularly presume that our ethnicity as African Americans is equivalent to our political consciousness or political identity (that was a fair assumption in the pre-Civil Rights era).
Your ethnicity, like your family, is something you're born into; you don't get to choose. Your political consciousness or identity are like friends – you get to choose. And like your friends, you should choose carefully.
We all know that black is a color but Webster says “black” also refers to any human group having dark-colored skin, especially those of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when we used “black” to define who we were. But when we used “black,” we meant much more than a description of our physical ethnicity. It also described a political identity.
When we talk about political consciousness or identity, we're talking about something metaphysical. It's a philosophical point of view, a way of looking at and understanding the world that empowers you to act upon that world to advance your interests.
Since often the further you look the less you see, I’ll stay in St. Louis to talk about concrete examples of this metaphysical concept of black political identity. The late state Senator J.B. “Jet” Banks, former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones and former city Treasurer Larry Williams all met that standard, and they met it every day of their political careers.
Senator Banks and Comptroller Jones were game-changing politicians. They changed the rules of political engagement and redefined what was possible in our political universe.
Harris-Stowe State University exists for one reason: the political skill and vision of Senator Banks. There was a moment in time when nobody in Missouri higher education supported the continued existence of Harris-Stowe State College. But while many were sleeping on it or whining about it, the Missouri Legislature, the Coordinating Board of Higher Education and a governor all became supporters of Harris-Stowe and today it's a university with a complete campus. By the way, there's not even a bench on that campus with Jet Banks’ name on it.
In St. Louis, the idea that the price of black political support for the city’s financial participation in economic development projects is synonymous with arrival of Virvus Jones in St. Louis politics. From the time he was elected 27th Ward alderman through his tenure as comptroller, he made this the litmus test for his support and, by extension, created a new paradigm for how African Americans in St. Louis should evaluate what they politically support.
Sadly, today African Americans stand around with “25/5” signs begging to be included in projects that have to have their support in order to proceed. The tribute Virvus Jones demanded as the price for black political support for city economic development projects has turned into African Americans at red lights begging for what they should be taking.
While Treasurer Williams wasn't a game-changer like Senator Banks or Comptroller Jones, he did max out on what was possible inside the context he operated in. Over the course of the 31 years he was St. Louis treasurer (1981-2012), he gave employment opportunities to hundreds of African Americans others wouldn't have given a chance. He created that first opportunity for African-American business professionals when others said they didn't have enough experience. He did all that while redefining the city’s Parking Division as a foundational part of the city's redevelopment efforts.
The question that the African-American community needs to debate is: What is the relationship between us and those we elect that maximizes the return on our political investment?
Mike Jones, who has held senior policy positions in St. Louis city and county government, serves on the St. Louis American editorial board and the State Board of Education.