I was shocked by the news about Claude A. Allen, the black former White House staffer whose rising star officially flamed out after he was arrested on charges of felony theft last week.
Not shocked that he got arrested—so many Republicans are being handcuffed these days for scams of one kind or another that it’s hard to keep the names and charges straight. What shocked me was how penny ante his alleged scam was, how unbefitting a man of Allen’s stature and lofty ideals rooted in the requisite conservative principles of God, fiscal prudence and anti-affirmative action activism above all else.
Here is a man who, like most black conservatives, has had to do an awful lot of personal and political rationalizing to pay dues, which included apprenticing with then-North Carolina senator and habitual racist Jesse Helms and opposing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
That has unfortunately, but not always unfairly, invited comparisons to slave times, when the most loyal blacks were those who worked in closest proximity to their white masters—house Negroes, as they were derisively known. Such Negroes gained privilege but lost standing in their own community, a price that might have been reasonable if they were eventually granted the same status as the whites they so assiduously served. They weren’t, of course; race has always mattered. And it matters now, though the dynamic is more subtle and devious.
Fast-track people such as Allen are praised by conservatives for being shining examples of their race, and, at the same time, they are used in one way or another for public relations purposes and damage control during racially charged moments. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was hastily dispatched to tour the Katrina-shattered South. Her predecessor, Colin Powell, was forced to sit out a world conference on racism and reparations in South Africa five years ago because of his country’s—not his—official disdain for the whole notion.
It’s hard to imagine that such compromises and cognitive dissonance don’t exact a psychological toll at some point, and Allen’s alleged dabbling in crime might have been that point for him. Was he testing the limits of a power he wasn’t sure he had, but needed? Was he fatally overconfident—fatal indeed for a black man—that his position shielded him from the consequences of crime, or at least the consequences of petty theft? After a career of always conducting himself appropriately, as his mentor Clarence Thomas reportedly advised, did he finally crack under the pressure? (All black folk, even conservatives, know they have to be three times as upstanding just to get along.) Was he acting out a latent bitterness at being denied a spot on the federal appeals court by a Senate that found his resume too thin and his past reference to gays as “queer” too cavalier for comfort? Or was he a closeted compulsive grifter who would have done this anyway? Hard to know.