A simple ceremony spoiled by racial overtones

It was supposed to have been a simple ceremony symbolizing a new bipartisan spirit in Washington:

The outgoing House majority whip, Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, was to hand his successor, Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, an actual whip that had been on display in Blunt’s leadership office at the U.S. Capitol.

But racial overtones apparently undermined the plan.

As camera flashes popped and video recorders whirled Thursday, Clyburn, a 66-year-old African-American from the South, did not receive the whip from Blunt, a 56-year-old white man from a border state.

Instead, Clyburn was given the whip by former Rep. William Gray of Philadelphia, who in 1989 became the first black House majority whip.

Clyburn, now the second African-American to hold the House’s No. 3 post, and Blunt declined repeated requests to explain why the ceremony was changed.

Ronald Walters, a black political science professor at the University of Maryland, said he had little doubt that racial sensitivity prompted the decision to have Clyburn receive the whip from a fellow African-American instead of from a white man.

“What it tells us is that race is still a very salient and touchy and dangerous issue to politicians,” Walters said.

Recalling the criticism of former Sen. George Allen for having displayed a noose in his former law offices, Walters said the whip also remains a potent symbol for blacks.

“These symbols are still very raw,” Walters said. “They drudge up memories of the way they were used to punish and brutalize black humanity.”

Cole Blease Graham, a white political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said that in changing the ceremony, Clyburn missed an opportunity to highlight positive change in the country, and especially in the South.

“It’s as if the various players are trapped in appearing politically correct, but missing the reality of the ceremony,” Graham said. “Here is a person (Clyburn) who within his lifetime would have struggled to even register to vote. The fact that he’s been able to achieve what he has is really one of the positive stories in American politics.”

Maryland’s Walters, though, said it was smart for Clyburn and Blunt to have changed the ceremony.

“They were attempting to restore some of the dignity of the moment,” Walters said. “To me, it makes a lot of sense. What they tried to do was neutralize the racial component of this issue.”