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Race Still Matters

June 5, 2016

Four years ago, I wrote that we know that white Americans don’t like to elect African-Americans to high office because they do it so rarely. At that time, the Senate included no African-Americans; one governor was African-American; and one of the mayors of our ten largest cities was African-American. (Four years ago, I incorrectly said that none of these mayors was African-American, but I overlooked Democrat Michael Nutter, who served two terms as Philadelphia’s mayor, ending in January of this year.) Only in the House of Representatives, where districts are gerrymandered, were African-Americans less egregiously under-represented: African-Americans constitute roughly 13 percent of the American population and held 41, or 9 percent, of the seats in the House.

I noted that the corporate world is hardly more inclusive. At that time, only six Fortune 500 companies were headed by African-American CEOs, with a seventh having been named but not yet having taken his position.

I noted that the exclusion of African-Americans from positions of high authority has been “persistent, long-standing, and pervasive” – therefore the exclusion of African-Americans from these powerful positions is not a happenstance, a short dip in a longer trend, or a matter of the personalities of the moment. It is a durable feature of American society and politics; it is a fundamental part of who we are as a people.

Barack Hussein Obama won both of the American presidential elections ever won by African-Americans. Half a year before the end of his historic presidency, I revisited my tabulations of four years ago; regrettably, at the national level at least, it is very difficult to see much difference over the last four years.

Four years ago, I noted that we had never had two African-American senators at the same time. This dismal record was broken on February 1, 2013, when Democrat Mo Cowan was appointed to replace Ted Kennedy, joining Republican Tim Scott, who had been appointed the month before to replace Jim DeMint. Cowan did not run in the subsequent special election, and left office on July 16, 2013. But on October 13, 2013, Cory Booker of New Jersey took office following a special election to replace Frank Lautenberg.

This is progress, to be sure, but in the teeny-tiniest of steps. It should not have to be big news that African-Americans hold fully two percent of United States Senate seats. And it should not have been 2013 when Tim Scott became the first African-American in history to have held seats in both houses of Congress. (A man of the name P.B.S. Pinchback, Republican of Louisiana, won elections to both houses in the 1870s, but was prevented from taking office both times by Democratic majorities in Congress.)

Today there are no African-American governors, Deval Patrick having left office last year. As was the case four years ago, we have only ever elected two African-American governors in all of our history. (Interestingly, the aforementioned Mr. Pinchback served for seven weeks as the nation’s first African-American state governor – he was the president pro tempore of the Louisiana Senate when the lieutenant governor died and the governor was impeached.)

Although Michael Nutter left the Philadelphia mayor’s job, Ivy Taylor became San Antonio’s first African-American mayor on July 22, 2014, replacing Julian Castro. Last year, she was elected to a full term. Taylor, an Independent, is the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of an American city with a population of more than a million. Her mayoralty reduces from four to three the number of America’s top ten cities that have never had African-American mayors.

Turner was joined in the top ten last year when Houston elected its second African-American mayor, Democrat Sylvester Turner.

Relatively speaking, therefore, at two out of ten, big city mayoralties are a bright spot for inclusion of African-Americans. But this must be taken in the demographic context: all ten of our largest cities are “majority minority,” meaning that non-Hispanic whites no longer constitute a majority in any of these cities. In that context, it’s not clear that two out of ten is a bright spot after all.

A similarly dubious bright spot is the current House of Representatives, whose members include a record 44 African-Americans. But again, the large majority of those 44 represent majority-minority districts, including at least 25 that are majority African-American. I could find only six districts in which African-Americans were elected to represent a population that is more than 50 percent non-Hispanic white.

Perhaps most remarkable of those six is Republican Mia Love, the only Republican African-American who represents a majority white House district. Love represents Utah’s fourth Congressional district, which is 84 percent non-Hispanic white. Love is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who converted to Mormonism after moving to Utah in 1998.

Love lived in the small town of Saratoga Springs, Utah, where she became active in civic affairs. In 2003, she ran for and won a seat on the town’s City Council, and after six years she ran and won the race for mayor. Saratoga Springs is about 89 percent non-Hispanic white. Love ran for Congress against an incumbent in 2012, and lost, but won the open seat in 2014. As an African-American Republican holding elective national office, Love is a scarce resource, and as a consequence she has won plum House committee assignments. For as long as she can keep her House seat, she promises to grow in national Republican prominence.

I dwell on Love’s career because she is a rare example of an African-American politician who has succeeded with majority white electorates. If our “national” offices consist of those I have reviewed – President, Congress, governor, and top ten city Mayors, then we have 596 “national” offices, 49 of which are held by African-Americans. At 8 percent, the under-representation is substantial but maybe not egregious. But when you drill down just a little and find that maybe 10 African-Americans holding those “national” offices were chosen by majority white electorates, the under-representation is egregious.

Furthermore, African-Americans politicians’ ability to win elections in majority-minority constituencies tends to focus those politicians’ efforts on developing their appeal to non-white voters – limiting their ability to advance to the Senate or to governor’s mansions, much less president.

White Republicans are worse than white Democrats about voting for African-Americans, although some might regard the difference as trivial. Of the 49 African-Americans holding our 596 “national” offices, only two are Republicans – Senator Scott and Representative Love. Both represent constituencies with large non-Hispanic white majorities, and therefore both have obviously developed considerable appeal to white voters.

The same applies to a handful of the African-American Democrats – Senator Booker, for example, and a few members of the House, like Joyce Beatty, Andre Carson, Keith Ellison, Gwen Moore and Bonnie Watson.

Interestingly, the only two sitting lieutenant governors who are African-American are Republicans – Kentucky’s Jenean Hampton and Maryland’s Boyd Rutherford. Lieutenant governors are like vice presidents, except even lower profile – most of them are not separately elected from their governors, and most voters don’t pay much attention to them either during their campaigns or during their tenures. This no doubt explains why American states have had 15 African-American lieutenant governors, but only four African-American governors – thus it’s not clear that we can say that an African-American lieutenant governor has a well-developed appeal to white voters.

Still, there is hope for the political future for any lieutenant governor, even if only by a mid-term departure of a governor.

Cabinet secretaries sometimes have electoral backgrounds, and a few, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, run for office after their cabinet service. There have been 20 African-American cabinet members, including three of 15 members of President Obama’s current cabinet. Of those, only Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has any electoral experience at all, and his electoral career consisted of four years on the Charlotte, North Carolina, City Council and almost four years as Charlotte’s mayor.

Outside the realm of politics, at least governmental politics, African-Americans have taken a bit of a slide in the four years since I wrote on the subject. Four years ago, six Fortune 500 companies were headed by African-American CEOs, with selection of a seventh then pending. Today, only five African-American CEOs are left, and Xerox’s Ursula Burns is losing her job later this year.

In November 2008, I saw the historic election of our first African-American president as a catalyst for racial progress. What I didn’t see then, but has all too clearly been the case, was that Obama’s election was also a catalyst for racial backlash.

I remain confident that in the long term, the greater of the two catalytic effects will be progress: an entire generation of children, African-American and not African-American, has grown up with an African-American president of unquestionable dignity, intellect, calm and reason. Only when that young generation comes to middle age will we be able to begin to measure the long-term social and political significance of the Obama presidency.

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