I vividly remember being accused of being too black, a charge that could have gotten me expelled from West Point in 1974, during my sophomore year.
Under the guise of poor attitude, my commanding officer suggested I had displayed distinct patterns of acting "black." I would give black power salutes to the few fellow black cadets I saw, and I spent much of my free time -- the little that was available -- with fellow black cadets. This made me and one of my other two black classmates in the company unpopular among white mates. I should add that the only other black classmate was the first recruited black quarterback of the Army football team.
I was asked if I was "black" or a cadet. I responded that I was a black cadet, and for this, was sentenced to a hearing before a board of officers. I survived without incident, but the tribunal review was not easy. Shortly after the review board, I had the luxury of consulting with a childhood hero and role model, NBA star Jamaal Wilkes, who said his answer would have been, "I'm a man."
Buffalo now has a new mayor-elect, a black man. Byron Brown's performance will be scrutinized based on the color of his skin by blacks and whites alike. One of his biggest challenges is to demonstrate that he is not bought and/or owned by anyone, and that he can develop staffing without use of the same "expertise" that put Buffalo where it is. Who Brown puts in place to do his staffing will mark him forever. Even if the mayor is totally unbiased and patronage-free, his hiring team could darken his first 100 days.
Even worse, there are those who may ask in private, is he first black, or is he first the mayor? I now know the answer I would give if I were in his shoes. It would be, "I'm human."
School Superintendent James Williams has a similar challenge, especially after he apparently offended people by stating that white principals were leading schools that were on the ball, and consistent with his strategies, and some black principals were not.
George Arthur suggested that if a white superintendent said the same thing, he would be dealt with harshly -- and in my opinion, rightly so. Williams is clearly an African-American, and in my view was making the point that he encourages the role models for the kids most at risk to work even harder for those same kids, thus sharing his commitment to at-risk students. He feels he has provided a plan by which this can be accomplished, and some white principles are demonstrating adherence and resultant success. Others, some of whom are African-American, are not adhering to his plan, and are judged by him to have less superior results.
The racism here may be that Williams implied he is more concerned with the role models for black students than others: Dr. Williams, are you first black or first the superintendent? No one would ask a white whether he or she were first a white or first a superintendent.
I hope the mayor-elect takes this town to the top. Brown will be judged from many angles, including race. He has demonstrated skills and the tools to do the work, but this being life, he may get an overt query along the lines of his allegiance to his race or his position. If he does, I recommend Wilkes' advice -- to respond simply that he is a man. Williams can feel free to borrow that line, too, because the shoe will fit.
Darrell Peebles, of Buffalo, discusses the challenges of being black.