I’ve been watching the drama that has unfolded since the outing of the Spokane NAACP president in Washington, Rachel Dolezal, who was passing for Black. Dolezal has been the target of racial animosity since her parents decided to uncover her true racial identity, part some say of a legal strategy involving her adopted brother in a long custody battle with her mom and dad.
As the story got deeper, we found out that Dolezal once sued Howard University, the Historic Black College in Washington, DC over discrimination because she was White.
Clearly, Dolezal has some issues in her past but those troubles should not automatically dismiss her work with the Spokane NAACP as a social justice advocate and working in depressed and poverty-stricken communities.
But the saga surrounding Dolezal brings to the fore the vexing question of Black identity and color consciousness in the age of Barack Obama.
Why is it a big deal when a person decides to identify with a particular race and then works to ensure racial equality for all?
Is she a traitor for abandoning her own race and instead form an allegiance with the Black race?
I don’t think she should be crucified for her choice of wanting to be Black. After all, it is not a crime to identify with any race. Her mistake was that she should have made it clear that she is White but considers herself Black.
There was no need to hide that. She should have acknowleged her race while proclaiming her love of seeing herself as a Black person.
We have a litany of examples of Whites who have worked diligently to address racial equality and in some cases did more than their Black counterparts.
I’ve seen many examples in organizations where the White leaders in those groups have done more to address racial equality than Blacks who were part of the same groups.
It is not so much about skin color, even though that has significant weight. It is more about color consciousness and not being afraid to express the solidarity of our humanity by affirming other people’s racial identity and working toward racial harmony.
For example, the late Maryann Mahaffey, the former president of the Detroit City Council who was White but worked harder to champion racial equality than some of her Black colleagues on the council. She was never afraid to talk about the conditions of Black children in this city. She did not hide her sentiments about the unequal access and lack of opportunities that relegated Black children to an uncertain future compared to their White counterparts.
The many times that I would visit her office during the time I was covering city hall, Mahaffey would narrate stories of her personal journey and political struggles, at the center of which was equality for all people. She talked about being arrested in front of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. for protesting against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa that had imprisoned freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.
Mahaffey took pride in that protest at the South African embassy. It was a seminal moment for her and it became the crowning example of her push against racism.
On the Detroit City Council she was a crusading voice for social justice, sometimes to the chagrin of her colleagues on the council, some of whom were shamefully less vocal than she.
Unlike the Spokane NAACP president, Mahaffey did not lie about being Black. She demonstrated in varied ways that Black lives matter in this city and she fought for the opportunities to ensure that Black children had equal opportunities.
Mahaffey did it so well that everyone knew that to get anything passed through her desk no matter who you were, you had to demonstrate a social justice consciousness and an understanding of the divide we have when it comes to opportunities. She was genuine, honest and direct in her demands both publicly at rallies and at the city council table. She was a leader who was not afraid to dive into the racial waters to ensure that children from oppressed communities were not left behind.
If Mahaffey had decided to run for mayor, she would have been the first White mayor of Detroit, 40 years before Mike Duggan.
Another example of a woman who was White but stood for Black equality in Detroit and the region was the late Eleanor Josaitis, the cofounder of Focus: HOPE.
Josaitis was unique. Though always calm, she had a commanding presence that drew people to her. She believed in a movement and reached out to a lot of people. She helped make Focus: HOPE a social justice movement.
Before I met Josaitis, even though I had read a lot about her work, I would receive calls from her informing me that she had just read my latest article. One day we met and that started a conversational relationship that led to lunch meetings.
One day we decided to go for lunch at La Dolce Vita restaurant on Woodward. She asked me to pick her up from her Focus: HOPE office. In the car she shared a lot of stories of her past struggles with racism and racial resentment simply for her decison to stick with Black Detroit after the 1967 riot.
As we drove to La Dolce Vita it was as if I was spending time in some sort of a racial reservoir of knowledge, listening to what this simple but powerful woman had been through just to make sure that Black children could smile.
At lunch she talked about how she was able to convince powerful corporate leaders to support the work of the organization. She talked about how her house was firebombed when she first decided to move to Detroit after the riot. She lamented the pain and the struggles that many poverty-stricken families in this city go through.
She wanted to make all of their lives better. She loved children and never wanted to see them suffer. She did not lie about being Black. She showed color consciousness. Her legacy is one that challenges many of us — especially our so-called Black leaders — in Detroit including those heading powerful institutions to do what Josaitis did.
Being Black is one thing. But working to help alleviate the condition of Blacks in this city is another.
I’ve seen a number of African Americans in powerful positions simply afraid to make a decision when it comes to addressing issues like diversity and racial equality.
They simply did not have the courage of Mahaffey and Josaitis. They are happy being in those positions as the first Black in a given position. But that does not mean anything to the future of Black children if you cannot demonstrate what you’ve concretely done to help better their lives.
That is the example that Josaitis and others set with Focus: HOPE by addressing the needs of Black kids, including the lack of opportunities. Her organization continues to provide training and empower our young people to have a future and to be become responsible and productive members of our community.
So instead of getting distracted with the story about whether it was right or wrong for the Spokane NAACP leader to claim Blackness,, we should be more concerned about what those leaders who are Black by blood and ancestry are doing for their communities.
We should be putting the spotlight on those who say that by virtue of them being Black they should not be held accountable to deliver for their communities.
We should be worried when our civic leaders are so consciousply silent on issues that concern Black lives.
We should be appalled when we have Blacks in corporate leadership positions or in higher levels of other organizations in this town but are afraid to make any seismic changes that reflect a need to embrace racial diversity. Instead, they keep giving excuses about why changes cannot take place.
Mahaffey and Josaitis did not give excuses. They stepped up. Mahaffey got arrested and Josaitis’ house got firebombed. That did not deter them. That is why we remember them as individuals who changed the human condition and made their mark on the human chapter on racial equality.
For those who are bereft of color consciousness but quickly and opportunistically use their Black identity to advance to positions of influence in organizations but do little or nothing in that role to make life better for Black children, and all children what should we remember them as?
They are Black and moving through the ladder of leadership, but unlike Mahaffey and Josaitis, they can’t pass color consciousness. And we will keep asking for their color conscious morality until they show us