The election of lesbian Annise Parker as mayor of Houston, similar to the election last year of African-American Barack Obama as president, was another mature moment of Americans judging individual people of color and homosexuals by the content of their politics. Not yet answered is whether America is ready to let such figures use their office to remediate the economic and education disparities and the civil rights gaps that still bedevil people of color and gay and lesbian people in general.
America is getting better at the individual level. The question is when will that translate into critical progress for the groups Parker and Obama come from.
Start with Parker. Houston became the largest yet in the United States to elect an openly gay mayor. Her sexual orientation meant less than her six prior citywide election victories for either city council or controller. The Houston Chronicle called her a grassroots "policy wonk'' who "happened to be gay.''
Houston narrowly rejected in 2001 benefits for same-sex partners of municipal workers, and 76 percent of voters in the state banned gay marriage in 2005. Parker takes office as the nation remains in a conundrum on gay rights. Americans now accept equal opportunity for homosexuals in the workplace and Obama signed a new hate crimes law that finally protects gays. But Obama's pledged repeal of the ban on gays in the military remains a slow political slog and same-sex marriage remains a heated issue, receiving various voter and legislative setbacks over the last year in Maine, New York, New Jersey, and California.
Because of the conundrum, Parker crafted her message to deep-six strong passions on issues that could be construed as identity politics. Asked in one debate if she would use her clout in City Hall to overturn the city ban on benefits for same-sex partners, Parker said, "I am not running to be a role model. I am running to be mayor of Houston . . . I believe, at some point, the city of Houston will offer domestic partner benefits, but it will require a vote of the citizens. I have no plans to initiate that vote.''
In another debate, she said of domestic partner benefits, "Personally, it's very important, but, as mayor of Houston, do I want to engage resources in fighting that battle or do I want to tackle the budget?''
That is similar to what Obama told me as a candidate in 2007 when I asked him how hard would he push Congress to repeal the vast disparities in federal sentencing for crack vs. powdered cocaine. Those disparities have unfairly imprisoned tens of thousands of nonviolent African-American offenders. Since Obama took office, Attorney General Eric Holder has voiced support for eliminating the disparity and the Democrats have bills working their way through Congress to get rid of it. But the real tests loom ahead against Republicans and conservative Democrats.
"Do we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue?'' Obama asked, wondering whether instead we should "spend more of that political capital'' on school programs.
It is a political prison in which white and straight privilege is taken for granted while equality for others is still derided as special pleading. Recently, Obama has been under pressure from African-American and Latino groups for not targeting more stimulus money to low-income neighborhoods.
Even though Obama is president of "all the people,'' he knows that the black male unemployment rate of 16.9 percent needs disproportionate remedies, compared to the 9.8 percent unemployment rate of white men. Yet he remains wedded to the trickle-down rhetoric of, "The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again.''
Since then, the Obama administration, through the Department of Transportation, is reportedly asking governors to make sure that more stimulus-funded contracts go to companies owned by people of color and women.
Trickle-down rhetoric did not result in a flash-flood of equity under Ronald Reagan and it will not under Obama. The next step for America is to let figures like Obama and Parker take office without them feeling that they must water down the fight for equality.