I shared a train with Roger Wilkins many years ago. I was at a Chicago housing conference and it was quite a thrill to just talk to someone of his statute for a bit up close and personal.
Wilkins died March 25, 2017 and I note his passing like many because a man of Wilkins’ accomplishments, civil servant, professor of government, and writer, deserves a trumpet or so as he passes through. I make particular note of a column Wilkins wrote on October 9, 1995 that discussed the possible political candidacy of General Colin Powell. It sheds light on our current political climate.
Wilkins wasn’t opposed to such a candidacy but he used the moment as an opportunity to comment on America and race in a particularly candid manner as he was known to do over the years. As Wilkins noted when some suggested Powell could “transcend race” and be elected, Wilkins took them to task.
“The question about Powell is not about transcendence,” Wilkins stressed, “but about how he will affect the texture of our race-charged politics.” In other words, Wilkins was sure there were many lying in wait who just wanted to justify their horrific neoliberal and racial policies by electing a black man.
In addition, Wilkins not only was concerned with racial issues in his career but also economic issues and his editorial discussed that as well. According to Wilkins at the time, “disaster has befallen unskilled workers generally in the U.S. “and…unmitigated calamity” had taken hold of the lives of “unskilled black workers” as a result of U.S. economic and labor policies. Powell, according to Wilkins, had made statements suggesting he wanted change but his statements of how to do it, seemed way out of touch.
Wilkins, on the other hand, described America in 1995, in the grips of Clinton’s neoliberalism and Newt’s anti-government rhetoric as follows:
[O]ur political system hasn’t faced up squarely to the issues brought on by globalization and technology, because the portion of the electorate that pays for politics likes the economy the way it is and thus buys selfish and shortsighted political programs.
Wilkins was sounding the alarm in 1995 in other words. The working class of America was not being prepared for the new economy that was just around the corner. That would be a disaster. And black workers were facing an even darker future for the same reasons and the nation’s racial history. The die was cast because no leader actually would seek to address the issue after 1995 with the exception of some token tinkering with the system as is here and there. The talk remained on deficits, shrinking the government, and tax cuts.
I see Wilkins’ column in this way: Wilkins predicted the possibility of the election of Barack Obama but also the reasons why Obama could be elected: he would not disrupt the status quo much, he would transcend race, and the race problem could finally be dismissed by the hardcore racists (especially those serving in office). Wilkins also predicted the possibility of Donald Trump after an Obama presidency especially if the two parties ignored the working class voters and left the issue of race out in the open for an opportunistic candidate to seize and shape in the old nasty way.
And then there is the end of his editorial:
…Powell himself, clear about his identity as a black man and broadly respected by whites,would be able to start us on a badly needed rational and lower-decibel discussion designed to heal our ancient racial wounds.What we should all hope for is that he will decide to use his formidable assets- including his race-to help us face some of our most intractable problems. Nobody in his right mind would want Colin Powell to transcend race.
Of course, a black man was elected President in 2008 and he did transcend race. But he ran from it for the most part because he felt he had to and because as he admits now, he was naive. And though he accomplished a few things of note amidst complete political obstruction, mostly, he was stymied by race and now he has been used as a reason to go the other way, back towards racism. For many, they have gone there with enthusiasm and gusto because there is nothing else they seem to know, and if that is all they have, such that it must be, and they have their leader as well.
Wilkins must be somewhere I am sure shaking his head in disgust.