Black on Black Grime

The Natalie Johnson Lee/Don Samuels race for city council is one of the nastiest campaigns in local memory

"Some would prefer if I speak only of being African, that I pretend my ancestors were all field slaves. If I don't, I might not be accepted as the real deal," Samuels said. "I argue the contrary. There is also wisdom in my shameful ancestry. It teaches that proximity to privilege can have advantages even when that proximity is dangerous and coupled with shame." He concluded by saying that "[P]eople who have the advantage to observe success will reproduce it more easily and frequently than people who don't. That is why the black middle and working class and all middle-class people must come back to communities of great poverty and share their capacity with the people left behind...."

The backlash, predictably enough, was fierce. The condescension and sense of noblesse oblige behind Samuels's dream of recruiting the middle class back to the ghetto grated on a lot of black people of less genteel bearing, and the historical legacy of house slaves snitching on field slaves to better their position is conveniently omitted from his argument--as is the practical reality that a reverse migration to the 'hood such as he advocates has never occurred in any American city, give or take the effectively unique case of Harlem in New York City.

"People get mad at me for comparing Don to Hitler," says Booker Hodges, the activist and former gubernatorial candidate who co-hosts a local cable-access show each week. Hodges is also married to Natalie Johnson Lee's council aide. "But that's what I think. In my opinion, he is a racist and a very divisive, dangerous man, the opposite of what this community needs." Adds Johnson Lee's husband, Travis Lee, "I grew up around Jewish culture in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. I know about the Holocaust and 'never forget.' And saying this about dark-skinned and light-skinned people is kind of like talking about Auschwitz and 'they didn't kill me because I had blond hair and blue eyes.' And when someone talks like this it can tear a community apart, like a David Duke."

Craig Lassig

Shortly after Samuels's remarks were printed, Hodges had this response on his cable-access show: "We as a people, one, must unite. We have to learn from, like, Nat Turner's mistake, and we have to kill the house niggas, we got to kill them and that's what we're doing on this show." Samuels, who throughout the current campaign has boasted of risking his safety by directly confronting drug dealers, lodged a complaint claiming that Hodges and co-host Al Flowers had threatened his life, an action that got the pair temporarily suspended from the cable broadcast. However, the Ramsey county attorney never brought charges on the matter. (Flowers, who didn't say anything about killing niggas, has in turn sued Samuels and other city officials for their role in his suspension and his later eviction from the city's DFL convention, despite Flowers's having appropriate press credentials.)

At the North High debate, Johnson Lee sought to distance herself from this nastiness. "The challenge here is, there are some people who are offended by some of the things my opponent has said, and they have decided to do some things with it. That has nothing to do with me," she said. That's disingenuous considering that her husband and the husband of a principal Johnson Lee aide have flung some of the harshest words.

Voters in the ward, regardless of their politics, are growing aggravated by the prevailing negativity. "The community of people behind Natalie need to recognize that when they make these inflaming accusations about people, they are not helping her, they are hurting her," says Tené Wells, a longtime friend and supporter of Johnson Lee. Natonia Johnson, who is supporting Samuels, is similarly unsympathetic to her candidate's role in the mud-slinging. "With this racial thing, I think Natalie's side started it, but I don't like this tit-for-tat that Don's campaign is doing either. What gets lost is, what can you do to improve the ward? That's what everybody really wants to know."


IT'S A HELL OF A QUESTION, WITH FEW concrete answers. In the view of most politics junkies who watch the machinations at City Hall, neither Samuels nor Johnson Lee have been particularly effective council members during their first terms. (Two of the most oft-repeated criticisms are that Johnson Lee is lax at returning phone calls and that Samuels has a relatively poor attendance record.) "It is a different thing holding each person back," says a colleague on the council who has remained neutral during the Fifth Ward campaign. "Natalie's focus is strictly on how many minorities are involved in something, how many people of color are in the mix--she's a one-note singer. And Don has this broader, kind of galactic philosophical outlook on some of the problems with his constituency. But neither one is really related to the nuts and bolts of how things happen around here."

Robert Lilligren has a different perspective. "I don't know that either of them have been as effective as they could be, but then they're not status quo politicians. If you push the status quo, it pushes back," says Lilligren, the current Eighth Ward council incumbent who, because of redistricting, now finds himself running for reelection in the Sixth Ward. "The 2000 census shows how racist we really are here. The gaps between communities of color are bigger here than just about anywhere in the country, and growing. As much as we like to think of ourselves as open and accepting in racial matters, the truth is, there is such enormous institutional racism that it is hard for them to be effective."

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