Race, Expectation and Feet of Clay

Former Assemblyman Morse Arberry, facing six felony counts for not reporting more than $120,000 in campaign contributions, wound up with a misdemeanor, a $1,000 fine and $100-per-month in restitution—none of which takes into account that it wasn’t the first time he had neglected to report campaign contributions.

If you think Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s office went too easy on him, that’s understandable. But for me, the Arberry scandal also brought back memories of graduate school, when the renowned Civil War historian (and future Pulitzer Prize winner) Eric Foner asked our very cynical class—which had just read and lamented two books on alleged black political corruption during Reconstruction—to ponder the following question: If you’re cynical about politics, why should you expect black politicians to be less corrupt than white politicians?

That question lingered as I thought back to the list of local African-American politicians who have fallen prey to scandal in the past two decades: Arberry had previously faced accusations that he lived outside his Assembly district. Former Assemblyman Wendell Williams worked for the city of Las Vegas, which paid him while he was in Carson City; he used a city phone for personal matters, drove with a suspended license, and was fined $15,000 for not filing campaign finance reports. Ex-County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates battled ethics complaints over her business connections and helping friends get concessions at the airport. Allegations of corruption dogged then-Las Vegas Councilman Frank Hawkins, now the local NAACP head. Longtime North Las Vegas Councilman William Robinson went through an FBI probe, among other rumblings. Lynette Boggs-McDonald ran into ethics questions as a Las Vegas Councilwoman and County Commissioner.

These are neither the only corrupt politicians in Southern Nevada history nor the worst offenders—remember G-sting and its cast of shady characters, none of whom were African-American? But black politicians seem to receive more attention than many of their white counterparts involved in questionable illegal activities.

Racism? No, because the media go after political scandals of all pigmentations, whether the corruption is real or imagined. Black politicians, though, may suffer from higher expectations: Since African Americans waited and fought for so long for their rights, the presumption may be that they should be better. Each leader is often taken to stand for the hope and promise of an entire race, and the weight of expectation makes for greater disappointment (and, in some corners, schadenfreude) when they fail. This has been a theme since Reconstruction.

It’s a time-tested but peculiar problem. No one questioned the general suitability of white politicians when John Ensign tripped over his bedsheets.

None of this erases the shame of fallen leaders like Arberry and Williams.

Several years ago, the College of Southern Nevada, where I work, named its telecommunications building for Arberry. And the school district has Wendell Williams Elementary School. Both names are now associated with scandal. Sometimes even the people from to whom we attach the boldest hopes wind up having feet of clay.