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Commentary: Rush plays old-school racial politics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2008 - It was already a lose, lose situation. However, Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush's comments made it more of an uncomfortable one. Rep. Rush's statements at the press conference where Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced his choice of Roland Burris for the vacant U.S. Senate seat were indicative of old-school racial politics.

He squashed any questioning of Blagojevich's appointee by claiming we need more African Americans in the Senate. He went further and put on notice anyone who questions the appointment. To praise the governor simply for appointing an African American is lame.

The racial overtones were clear and unfortunate. While I can understand frustration of Rep. Rush with the lack of racial diversity in the Senate, to minimize the issue and use the race of the appointee to essentially bully people into submission is unnecessary. Rush attempted to elevate the appointment of an African American to "tremendous national importance."

Sure we need more African Americans in the Senate. We need more people of color in the ranks of government in general to be more representative of our society. However, you can get that point across without using the tactic of shaming us out of questioning the details of this messy situation.

Rush went beyond his call for numerical increases asking people not to "hang or lynch" the appointee and to separate "the appointee from the appointer."

Again, the racial connotation is clear and, to me, sounds like an attempt to silence interrogators. He took a step further and said, "I don't think any U.S. senator ... want[s] to go on record to deny one African American from being seated in the U.S. Senate."

This assertion is what got me fired up. Part of me understands that he was trying to stand up in the face of immediate allegations that Burris is tainted based on his appointment by the controversial governor. However, the comment wreaks of old school racial politics.

Historically, blocking the achievements of a person solely based on race was generally accepted. In that pre-Civil Rights Movement climate, it made sense to call out those who dared to stand in the way of a qualified individual. However, racial politics have progressed.

To be clear, racial discrimination occurs, and I'm sure blocks the progress of many. However, the issues are more complicated and to intimidate senators from coming forward to question an appointee because of his race is to send the message that you assume we live in the past. It misses the complexities of race today and does a number on intergroup dialogue. 

To be fair, Roland Burris does have a long history of service in the state of Illinois. In many ways, it was a safe choice given the fact that the people of Illinois voted him into office on numerous occasions. However, he has a number of obstacles before him regardless of his race.

For starters, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has said that he would not certify the appointee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Democratic caucus would not seat the appointee. For these reasons and more that we have yet to uncover, Rush's use of old school racial politics to make race the front and center issue is just plain off the mark.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks