This isn’t a coincidence.
Of the four African Americans serving on Madison’s Common Council, three face challenges in the spring election. David Handowski is running against Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Steve Fitzsimmons is challenging Maurice Cheeks and José Eladio Rea has filed to run against Sheri Carter on the South Side. Only Samba Baldeh did not draw a challenger.
Of the 15 other incumbents seeking re-election, only one faces a challenge. John Terry will run against incumbent Zach Wood in the student-centric Fifth District.
Meanwhile, Bradley Campbell and Arvina Martin will vie for the open seat being vacated by Tim Gruber.
Seventy five percent versus six and a quarter percent. Three of four versus one of 15. That’s no coincidence.
White liberals have spent the past few days oscillating from “is it a coincidence?” to “yes, it’s just a coincidence” to “stop asking if it’s a coincidence,” in typical Madison everything-is-fine, it’s-not-about-race, at-least-we-talked-about-it fashion.
Meanwhile, people of color shrug. Yeah, it’s not a coincidence. It’s not even a surprise.
Can we say that without being accused of race-baiting? Probably not. But we’re saying it anyway. It’s not a coincidence.
Does that mean the challengers are racist? Of course not.
Let’s be crystal clear about this: No one — no one — has decided to run against a black incumbent because the incumbent is black. Nobody running for office genuinely believes that Madison really needs fewer people of color on the Common Council.
No individuals are being accused of racism here.
In fact, the six people who filed to run for the Council should be applauded. The four people challenging incumbents especially deserve praise — the deck is stacked against them, and they’re going against the odds to earn a job that’s thankless, gruelling and underpaid. We should all be so committed to serving our community.
That said, we have issues.
Here’s the thing: Representation matters.
Those two words have been coming up a lot lately, and they’ve never been more true.
In movies. In arts. In government. Representation matters.
Representation speaks. Representation says who belongs where. Representation tells you where you belong. Representation tells you where you’re welcome, where you’re safe.
And right now, in the City of Madison, representation tells us that white politicians are safe politicians. A white-held seat is a safe seat. White alders don’t have to campaign. Black alders do. White alders belong by default; black alders have to earn it.
No matter anyone’s intent, no matter the root causes, no matter the statistics, that’s the representation presented in this spring’s election.
All of this is especially worth noting if we remember that this same council was set to rubber-stamp the approval of only its second African American president in history, but failed to do so.
It’s also worth noting, on the upside, that representation could actually diversify this spring. Rea could become only the second Latino to serve on the Council, and Martin is a member of the Ho-Chunk nation.
So, what to do? No one thinks those running against African American incumbents should stand down, and no one wishes they weren’t running. Those African American candidates should earn the right to stay on the Council — but they shouldn’t be the only ones who have to. All incumbents should earn the right to continue to lead. All.
What’s it going to take to get more challenges to those safe white-held seats? What’s it going to take to get more people of color to run? Maybe better pay for alders. Maybe more efficient meetings that get done before midnight sometimes. Maybe redrawn districts that encompass more diversity. Maybe a less expensive campaign.
Whatever the long-term solution, it does no good to ignore the elephant in the room. Noting a disparity that seems to have something to do with race is not the same as crying racism.
However, failing to note that disparity is the same as accepting the status quo.
So, consider the disparity noted.