More than five years after Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses and demolished the notion that white voters wouldn’t support a black presidential candidate, progress for other African-American politicians remains elusive. Even as the country elected and reelected Obama, making it seem increasingly unremarkable to have a black family in the White House, African-Americans are scarce and bordering on extinct in the U.S. Senate and governorships.
The president is indeed exceptional—but in the wrong sense of the phrase as it applies to other black politicians.
Consider what has taken place, or not taken place, since Obama broke the presidential color barrier in 2008: There has not been one African-American elected to the Senate—the only blacks in the chamber were appointed to fill vacant seats; the country’s sole African-American governor, who was originally elected before Obama captured the presidency, won reelection but may leave the ranks of black governors empty when he leaves after 2013; and a cadre of promising, next-generation black politicians have either lost races (Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, Reps. Kendrick Meek of Florida and Artur Davis of Alabama) or seen their careers extinguished because of scandal (former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.)
The situation is particularly embarrassing for Democrats, to whom black voters give the vast majority of their support. Until Sen. Mo Cowan (D-Mass.) was appointed in February, the only African-American in the Senate was a Republican—Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina And it’s not lost on high-profile Democrats that the GOP now enjoys more ethnic diversity among its statewide leaders than the party whose president is both an illustration and a beneficiary of America’s changing face.
“We’re not there yet,” conceded Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “That’s why when people ask me whether the election of President Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, I say, ‘No, it’s just a down payment. There’s still a lot of work to do.’”
Looking at the horizon, there’s reason for some optimism that a class of African-Americans now in their 30s and 40s will ascend to statewide office. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx (whom Obama will nominate to be transportation secretary on Monday), California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Maryland Lt. Gov Anthony Brown, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Oklahoma state House Speaker T.W. Shannon could all become governor or senator in the next decade.
But in the short term there’s a glaring dearth of African-Americans ready to step up. Booker could be the only black elected to the Senate in 2014 and Brown the sole African-American to become governor next year—and that assumes both win the nomination and general election.
A central point of contention—and one of the rawest debates ongoing in black politics—is whether Obama shares some blame for not doing more to advance a generation of African-American politicians.
“The reality is that for all of the euphoria about the election of Barack Obama in black America, his election has not had coattails,” said Tavis Smiley, the popular talk show host and outspoken Obama critic.
Smiley contended that the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful presidential campaigns in the 1980s did more to empower black politicians and voters than Obama’s election. “That’s just a hard fact that we’ve got to come to terms with,” he said.
Obama friends make no apologies for his being a different sort of black politician and predict that Smiley’s criticism about lack of coattails will be proved wrong in time.
“I now see lots of young African-Americans talking about running for public office in no small part because they look at Barack Obama and in Barack Obama they see themselves,” said Obama strategist David Axelrod, who oversaw both the president’s first election and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2006 victory.
“There are gatekeepers in place in black politics whose very presence tamps down upward mobility for newcomers,” complained a well-connected African-American official who is personally close to Obama. “There are established members in the CBC and state legislatures who’ve been there forever and until those folks move on to different things it’s going to be hard to break through.”
Other Obama supporters say his ability to win white votes—and the ability for black candidates to do so in the future—is actually aided by his not being seen as ostentatiously building an African-American political farm team.
The most painful irony in black politics is that the very legislation that has ensured African-Americans have a voice in Congress, the Voting Rights Act, now can act as an impediment to blacks attempting to climb the electoral ladder.
While black-majority districts all but guarantee African-American representation, they also have the effect of stamping the members, fairly or not, as simply representing black interests. It’s a less than preferable training ground for a politician who wishes to run statewide among a more diverse electorate.
For years, black Democrats and white Republicans have, particularly in the South, struck a Faustian bargain of sorts wherein they agree to racially packed districts that ensure safe seats for all parties. It has meant longevity for many black politicians in the state capitols and Washington but done little to vault African-Americans beyond their homogenous districts to statewide office.
The failures of black statewide candidates certainly shouldn’t be chalked up entirely to crude racism, but it would be foolhardy to not consider the unease that some whites still feel about voting for a black candidate. Look no further than Obama’s 2008 landslide win, in which he still tailed off in some regions of the country from John Kerry’s 2004 loss.
What still gives some black Democrats pause about running statewide is that they simply don’t think conservative-leaning white voters will give them a fair shot.
“Most people are not going to want to say this publicly, but it is infinitely easier to win a public office in an urban center where you have a lot of cosmopolitan-minded people than it is to run statewide,” said Cleaver.