Under the Sun | Fight the stereotype

Posted: May 01, 2007

The Book of Ecclesiastes says all is vanity and vexation under the sun.

That's certainly the way a lot of us feel about the Philadelphia mayoral candidates. They're either vain or vexing. But they're also well qualified.

It has been particularly interesting to notice that all three African American Democrats are being stereotyped by some observers - but each in a different way.

Dwight Evans is the angry black man. Chaka Fattah is the lazy black man. Michael Nutter is the Oreo. The typecasting is as odious as it is off base. But the superficial analyses didn't generate from thin air.

Evans and I share the distinction of being, let's say, burly men. As such, our demeanor can appear threatening or angry when we are simply irritated. And Evans has a lot to be irritated about, considering most polls place him last in the five-man Democratic field.

When I was younger, I realized that many white people - whether they grew up in the North or South - are just plain apprehensive around black men, especially burly ones. They think the Nat Turner in us is going to spring forth at any moment.

That's probably not going to happen. For me, it helps to remember James 1:19, which urges us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

As a cub reporter who often needed to talk to people who get nervous around big black men, I learned to tone down my attitude. I learned to dress conservatively and to try not to raise my voice, even when I really was angry.

Evans is a skilled politician. I'm not saying anything he doesn't already know - and do. But over the course of this campaign, Dwight too frequently has just been Dwight. He's shown his irritation when he was irritated, and that's allowed people to comfortably fall into their penchant to stereotype.

The stereotyping of Fattah as running a lazy campaign is almost mind-boggling. Lazy is an inappropriate adjective for someone who, after dropping out of high school, earned a Penn master's degree, became the youngest person elected to the Pennsylvania House, has served five terms in Congress, and runs maybe the most efficient get-out-the-vote operation in Philadelphia.

Perhaps past success has made Fattah complacent. Maybe he needs a challenge as huge as being mayor to be truly energized. But calling him lazy comes too close to a stereotype black men have been trying to shake off since the days of Stepin Fetchit.

Me? I'm not lazy, but I am one of those guys who's industrious without appearing to work hard. I don't waste energy shouting at people, rushing hither and thither, or pulling at my hair when things go wrong. (And if I did, some of you would accuse me of going Nat Turner.)

I'm a bottom-line guy, and I think Fattah is, too. The bottom line is that you get the job done right. We'll see in a few weeks whether Fattah has done that with his campaign.

I identify a lot with the stereotype of Nutter, but not to the same degree. I've never been taken for an Oreo (not with this inner Nat Turner thing). But as a black reporter working for a "mainstream" newspaper, I have been accused of being a tool for "the man."

That's why when I speak to African Americans about the work I do, I try to make sure they know I'm no one's tool, unless it is God's. As a journalist, my mission is to tell the truth - not curry favor with my white bosses at the expense of black people.

Nutter is proud to be a black man. But he has a reputation for surrounding himself with fawning white intellectuals who feed his need to be reassured of his superior intelligence.

Nutter has not been polling well among African American voters. That he would even suggest a police stop-and-frisk policy among his other fine strategies to combat violent crime is an affront to many black Philadelphians.

They understand that desperate residents in some gun-ravaged neighborhoods may be clamoring for desperate measures. But they want a mayor, especially a black mayor, who is more sensitive to the history of giving such license to police.

Nutter says he has been a victim of racial profiling by police, so he should have known that his presenting such an idea would upset many African American voters. He's no Oreo, but he's made it easier for people to label him as one.

With so many undecided in this election, the candidate who in the time remaining does the most to erase his personal stereotype will have the better chance to win.


Contact deputy editorial page editor Harold Jackson at 215-854-2555 or hjackson@phillynews.com.

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