What If Weiner Were Black?

What If Weiner Were Black?


Sources today said embattled Congressman Anthony Weiner would resign after admitting he sent racy photos and text messages to multiple women and then lying about it. But what happens next in the life of this once rising political star?

If anything, the Democrat from New York has made one thing clear: He wants to be in control of his future.

Weiner has faced weeks of scrutiny, criticism and comic abuse, but beyond the humiliation factor he’s received very little “official” punishment.  Yesterday, when Democratic House members held their regular meeting, they declined to action against Weiner, hoping that he would do it himself.

Even President Barack Obama suggested Weiner should solve the problem and resign, saying that’s what he would do in such a situation. Until today, Weiner held firm in his decision to stay in office.

But if Weiner were African-American, would he have had such free will in this political matter? Would stepping down be a choice, as it appears to be for Weiner, or would it be a mandate? And what does this mean for his political future?

When it comes to politics, statistical and anecdotal evidence show that race and ethnicity often come into play.  While the congressman’s Jewish ethnicity doesn’t seem to be a huge factor in public perception, if he were an African-American and had sent pictures of himself in his underwear over the Internet, it is likely the rhetoric would be amped up even more than now.

“Our research would suggests that if Obama was in Weiner’s shoes he’d have to step down,” political science professor Adam Berinsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Politic365.

Berinsky is the co-author of a study that recently looked at how race affects political scandals.  The team chose two candidates during the presidential primary in 2008, John Edwards and Barack Obama, and then created a fake report that implied one of the candidates was involved in a sexual affair.

They found that given the exact same information, white voters’ negative perception of Obama was affected to a greater extent than was their perception of Edwards, who ironically was involved in a real life extramarital affair at the time.

Berinsky said this reaction was more subconscious than conscious racial stereotyping, but it proves that race still matters.

“Given the exact same news story, the exact same imagery in that story, the only thing different being the identity of the candidate … Obama paid a much greater cost in terms of how people perceived him and his ideology,” Berinsky said. “People’s evaluations of Obama dropped further, given the scandal, than similar images of John Edwards.”

He says this has a lot to do with historical stereotypes of the hypersexual black male.

The prominence of racial stereotyping may explain, as Berinsky’s study suggests, why sex scandals involving African-American politicians tend to end in harsher results than do those involving white public figures.

In the past 20 years, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock; his son of the same name, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, had an extramarital affair; Congressman Mel Reynolds, also of Illinois, went to jail for having sexual relations with a minor; District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry was caught having several extramarital affairs; and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was caught sexting with an aide.

Most infamously, Clarence Thomas, during confirmation hearings on his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, was accused of sexually harassing professor Anita Hill when she was a member of his staff.

For many black politicians, these sex scandals seem to open up other larger scandals, and the punishment is often hefty. Kilpatrick is still serving out a jail sentence and has to use profits from his new book to pay the city of Detroit almost one million dollars; Barry, has faced repeated arrests for various charges and was currently stripped of some of his roles as a City Councilman; Jackson Jr., still serves in the House of Representatives, but had to allegedly forgo running for the U.S. Senate because of the scandal; and his father has had to endure diminished public stature and political influence, all the while dealing with another scandal involving a former employee who claimed he was unjustly fired because he was homosexual; he also alleged he had to assist Jackson Sr. in cheating on his wife.

Barry and Thomas prove that a sex scandal doesn’t necessarily always stifle one’s political career. Barry was re-elected as mayor post-scandal, and he has retained elective office for most of the years following a sixth-month stint in federal prison. Thomas serves on the bench on the most prestigious court in the country and remains one of the nation’s most influential African-Americans.

And white men, such as former Senator John Edwards, recently indicted for allegedly using campaign contributions to help conceal an affair that produced a child, don’t always escape harsh punishment, either. Many suffer penalties for their indiscretions.

Still, others enjoy subsequent opportunities to make cash and influence public opinion — opportunities seldom, if ever, extended to African-Americans involved in sexual scandals.

For example:

  • Former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer was involved in a sex ring — it was all over the news. He landed a starring role on CNN making a reported salary somewhere between six and seven figures.
  • Former President Bill Clinton has washed away his oral sins with the Clinton Global Initiative, a respected global nonprofit, has enjoyed continued influence in policy and politics and has made $65 million in speaking fees since he left office.
  • Former Congressman Mark Foley, who made passes to underage minors via text messages, now sells real estate and hosts a political radio show.
  • Gary Hart, who was caught with a mistress on a boat named Monkey Business, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

The study by the MIT professor argues that subtle, but powerful, perceptions were at work in dealing out repercussions of these sexual scandals.

“Given the stereotypes that people hold, not as negative term, just the way that candidate images play out, the black candidate would play a higher price than the white candidate,” said Berinsky.

“If we take a look at how people evaluate candidates, how they evaluate people in society in general, they rely on stereotypes in general, and in this case we look at stereotypes that African-Americans are promiscuous … playing into long-seated stereotypes can do a lot of damage to a candidate.” Berinsky said.

This means that though Weiner’s career as a congressman may be ending soon, in a heap of disgrace, his chances of surviving the scandal and remaining influential and financially prosperous are probably better than if he were the president.

When politics meets scandal, there is always a price to pay. As recent history and the MIT study show, the price is higher if you are black.


  1. Great question!

    Weiner may have a hard time bouncing back … he's screwed up in so many ways.

    But, he has a better chance than any black man who did the same, no doubt.

    A most interesting analysis.

  2. Interesting study.

    Clarence Thomas is a nuanced case. He got his appointment, perhaps the most prestigious of them all, but the cloud remains, and you get the sense that he is dogged by that experience, even today, years later.

    Bill Clinton, by comparison, suffered tremendously at the time — Newt Gingrich and his GOP army in the House had him impeached! — but he has come back as a statesman and a happy man.