“A divide that existed between the political fortunes of black and white Americans has just been erased, and I guess it’s been erased for all time.” That was the assessment of Julian Bond, the legendary civil-rights leader and former NAACP chair, after Barack Obama won the presidency. It was echoed by prominent African American figures of all generations, who were hopeful that Obama’s victory would usher in a new age of successful black politicians. “In the twenty-first century,” wrote journalist Gwen Ifill in The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, “the breakthrough generation of black politicians is aiming to capture much bigger territory. Obama’s relentless and disciplined giant-slaying campaign is by no means the only story.”
But since the momentous 2008 election, there has been no great flowering of black political life, no renaissance in black political leadership. In a year when the first black president is running for re-election, the only African American bidding for a top statewide office is Maryland state Senator C. Anthony Muse, who is challenging Ben Cardin—a well-liked incumbent—in a hopeless race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. At most, by the end of 2012, two of the nation’s 150 governors and senators will be African American.
Yes, David Patterson became governor of New York after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, but he bowed out of running for a full term after struggling with low approval ratings and accusations of corruption. Obama’s replacement in the U.S. Senate, former Illinois lawmaker Roland Burris, operated under a cloud of scandal and didn’t even attempt to win the seat in his own right. In 2010, a historically bad year for Democrats, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was the only African American to win statewide office.
If the number of officeholders was in line with African Americans’ share of the population—12.2 percent—there would be at least 12 African American senators and six governors. By contrast, the percentage of African Americans in the House of Representatives is nearly consistent with their share of the population—42 members, or almost 10 percent.
Asked to explain the dearth of blacks in high offices, most people would point to overt racism and subconscious bias. But it’s not so straightforward. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, recently co-authored a paper that sought to explain the disparity. Why, he wondered, do black House members not reach for the Senate? The House of Representatives has long been a springboard for political advancement; nearly half the members in the current Senate—49—served in the House. By contrast, of the dozens of African Americans who have held House seats, not one has moved to the Senate, and only four have tried.
Oppenheimer, working with Vanderbilt doctoral students Jennifer Selin and Gbemende Johnson, identified several major obstacles for black House members. First, most African American House members represent districts in large states. Not only do they have more competitors for Senate seats; they also have lower name recognition because they represent a smaller share of their state’s population than do House members from smaller states.
“Second,” Oppenheimer says, “is the issue that most African American House members have very liberal voting records. Even if they aren’t very liberal, they represent districts that vote very heavily for Democratic presidential nominees,” making it less likely that they can appeal to the moderates and independents who decide elections in most states. Of the 40 black House members currently serving, only two represent competitive districts: Georgia Democrat Sanford Bishop Jr. and Florida Republican Allen West. The other members represent some of the most Democratic districts in the country; in the 2008 presidential election, Obama won those districts by 26 percentage points more than the national average.
Not only does a House member from these districts have a harder time appealing to a broader statewide electorate, but attempts to moderate can prove fatal in Democratic nominating contests. Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, once considered a rising star in the party, tried to move to the right when he ran for governor in 2010; in a widely publicized move, he came out against President Obama’s health-care reform law. As a result of his repositioning, Davis—who was one of the first national Democrats to get behind Obama’s presidential campaign—lost the black vote and was crushed in the gubernatorial primary by a 25-point margin. The victor? Ron Sparks, a white Democrat who took the time to garner support from the state’s black establishment. Davis was banished from the Democratic Party as an apostate—he was last seen writing guest editorials for National Review.
A final factor: African Americans tend to represent less-affluent districts. In the 111th Congress (elected in 2008), the median household income for districts represented by black members was $39,745, compared to a national median of $50,233. “If the base of your initial fund--raising is friends and neighbors,” Oppenheimer says, “then there are limitations to becoming a viable candidate for governor or Senate.”
“If a person does not have access to very deep pockets,” says Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the Senate, “they really don’t have a chance.” Braun points out that this problem is especially acute for black politicians, who, without strong fundraising potential, may fail to convince party leaders they can win. “The notion is that African Americans don’t have access to deep pockets and won’t bring additional money to the party coffers that would then allow the party to expand its vote-getting capacity,” Braun says. To prove they are viable candidates, black politicians need to raise huge sums of money. Because of low confidence in their ability to do so, however, fundraising is difficult; an ambitious black politician can easily become trapped in a vicious cycle of low expectations and diminished opportunities.
One can imagine a world in which even a talent like Obama could be stuck, unable to fight past these forces. In 2000, as a University of Chicago law professor, Obama ran for the House against incumbent Democrat Bobby Rush in his heavily black district. Obama lost the primary and, two years later, ran for state senate and won. Had he nabbed Rush’s House seat, Obama would likely have been limited in his ability to raise funds and hampered statewide by the liberalism of his district. In retrospect, his loss to Rush was a godsend that freed him to build a multiracial constituency outside of Chicago’s South Side.
At one time, Obama wanted to be mayor of Chicago, a powerful position that could serve as a stepping-stone for higher office. Indeed, since the 1980s—with Harold Washington in Chicago, Norm Rice in Seattle, and David Dinkins in New York City—urban mayorships have been important tests of broad political appeal for black politicians. If Obama had succeeded, though, he would have faced similar constraints, since the problems encountered by black local leaders often mirror those of black House members. Despite the prominence that comes with leading large cities, no black mayor has been elected governor or senator.
In 1990, Harvey Gantt looked like the breakthrough candidate who would overcome the obstacles. Gantt was the first African American mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina—home to national banks like Bank of America and a center of commerce for the entire South. With two successful terms as mayor behind him and a proven ability to win white votes, he decided to challenge archconservative U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. The Democrat’s campaign generated a tremendous amount of excitement both in the state and nationwide, and for a moment it looked like Gantt could beat Helms and become the second African American senator in a hundred years. Nonetheless, as he moved closer to the prize, his race became an insurmountable burden.
As the highly visible mayor of a diverse, major metropolitan area, Gantt had entered the contest with an enviable set of advantages. “When I decided to run,” Gantt says, “I thought I could win using the same kind of coalition I used to win in Charlotte, where only 25 percent of the population was African American, in the state as a whole, which was 21 percent African American.” Charlotte also provided a good fundraising base for Gantt’s campaign. “I never really worried about the money,” he says. Thanks to national attention galvanized by his attempt to unseat a former segregationist, Gantt was also able to raise significant money from Democratic donors in the party strongholds of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta.
For most of the fall, the race was tight. But in what became a low mark for racial ugliness in a modern campaign, Helms’s team released its infamous “Hands” ad, produced by GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, late in the campaign. The ad opens in a dark room, as a pair of white hands crumples a rejection letter while an announcer provides the voice-over: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” The ad was widely credited with helping lift Helms to a five-point win.
In 2006, ten years after Gantt lost a rematch with Helms, Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. saw his senatorial campaign crumble after a similar appeal to the racial fears of Southern whites. Ford, the charismatic scion of a powerful black political family in Memphis, ran close to Republican Bob Corker for most of the race, until the Republican National Committee launched a last-minute broadside with its “Call Me” ad. In the spot, a young, blond white woman flirts with the viewer—who stands in for Ford—and asks the black congressman to call her.
More than 20 years later, Gantt sees the “Hands” ad as emblematic of the obstacles still facing ambitious black politicians in the South, where the majority of black officeholders reside. “These are the states where the history of racial segregation makes it difficult to find white citizens who will get behind a campaign,” he says. “A lot of very capable African American politicians in the South don’t see much opportunity to win a large part of the white population.”
Of course, white politicians are hardly immune to attacks on their policy views or their character. Senator John Kerry, famously “swiftboated” in 2004, stands as a prominent example. Kerry was attacked as an individual, however, while Gantt and Ford were attacked as representatives of a group. Jesse Helms could have aired his ad against Harold Ford, and the RNC could have aired “Call Me” against Gantt, and they would have worked equally well. As African Americans running in the former Confederacy, the Democrats were vulnerable to the hateful stereotypes that defined blacks for many white Southerners.
Despite the attacks that took down Gantt and Ford, outright racism isn’t the main reason that keeps African Americans locked out of the highest statewide positions. Rather, it’s the accumulated effects of long-term racial discrimination—the limitations associated with representing heavily black House districts or leading majority-black cities—that block further advancement. If black politicians almost always represent black constituencies, it’s because of historic housing patterns shaped by discrimination. If black constituencies are typically less affluent than their white counterparts, it’s because more African Americans are still in low-income brackets, another product of discrimination.
Braun believes it’s a question of normalizing African American leadership. In Chicago, she notes, “we had the benefit of [Mayor] Harold Washington, we had the benefit of state Senator Richard Newhouse, who helped to nurture young people and build a bench.” Braun was a speechwriter for Newhouse. “By the time people asked me to run for public office,” she says, “I was a lot more experienced than I thought.”
The problem is that we have normalized black leadership. President Obama stands as the most prominent example; in the last decade, we’ve also had two black secretaries of state and a black attorney general. We shouldn’t discount these gains, which are genuine achievements, but they’ve done nothing to counter the structural obstacles that keep African Americans from climbing the political ladder.
“That’s not going to change very easily,” Oppenheimer says. “If you decided to move the African American population of Washington, D.C., to Wyoming tomorrow, then you could elect an African American senator. But that’s not going to happen.”