Thursday, December 27, 2007

Black Candidates and the Presidency

It's a question I've been asking my students all year: Can a black candidate win the White House in 2008?

The phenomenal rise of Barack Obama in presidential politics is the obvious catalyst for such thinking. I've been paying close attention to Obama since his mercurial speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I'm attracted to his calls for greater individual responsibility in the black community, and I find his own personal charisma to be astonishing.

Can Obama win the presidency next year? He's moving closer to that goal than any African-American in history. Today's Washington Post examines what the authors call "
The Steepest Climb," the long struggle for black candidates seeking the presidency:

Whether enough voters can envision Barack Obama in the Oval Office will be revealed shortly. But some black politicians believe the time is right, as the country has witnessed the gradual rise of African Americans in leadership roles -- from coaching major sports franchises to presiding over corporate boardrooms. Breakthroughs in the popular culture, where many Americans form their impressions of each other, have been among the hardest to achieve.

Norman Jewison, who directed the 1967 hit movie "In the Heat of the Night," recalled that some newspapers refused to take ads for the film, which featured Sidney Poitier as a sharp-minded detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a Southern town. The movie went on to earn five Oscars, including one for Best Picture. "I think [the film] woke up a lot of people in the Deep South," Jewison says. "I don't think they'd ever seen a black character on the screen as smart and talented as Sidney."

More than three decades later, actor Dennis Haysbert was cast as David Palmer, a U.S. senator who is elected the nation's first black president in the television drama "24." When Haysbert encounters strangers who recognize him, it is often this role that they want to discuss. "I've lost track of how many times people have asked me to run for president," Haysbert says, adding that he believes the role had "a major impact" on how black politicians are perceived, "simply from the feedback I get from people from all walks of life."

And yet there are statistics that are not so heartening. Less than 4 percent of the nation's elected officials are black, and 90 percent of them represent predominantly black or predominantly black-and-Hispanic constituencies. Thus, not many black politicians have won elections when the majority of voters were white. Only three black U.S. senators and two black governors have been elected since Reconstruction.

As a consequence, only a handful of blacks have even dared to run for president, and virtually all them are civic activists such as comedian Dick Gregory, whose 1968 write-in campaign garnered just over 47,000 votes, perennial third-party candidate Lenora Fulani, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose 2004 Democratic campaign fizzled. The Rev. Jesse Jackson? We'll get to him in a minute.

"We've always been conflicted about this issue of running, because the heavy hanging cloud has been that a black can't win," says University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, who was Jackson's top issues adviser during his 1984 campaign.
Read the whole thing.

What's interesting about Obama's campaign is that we've yet to see the kind of subterranean racial politics that surrounds black candidates at some point in every election year, especially when victory seems close at hand. In 2006 we saw that kind of controversy surrounding Harold Ford,
who ran for the Senate from Tennessee:

The Tennessee Senate race, one of the most competitive and potentially decisive battles of the midterm election, became even more unpredictable this week after a furor over a Republican television commercial that stood out even in a year of negative advertising.

The commercial, financed by the Republican National Committee, was aimed at Representative Harold E. Ford Jr., the black Democrat from Memphis whose campaign for the Senate this year has kept the Republicans on the defensive in a state where they never expected to have trouble holding the seat.

The spot, which was first broadcast last week and was disappearing from the air on Wednesday, featured a series of people in mock man-on-the street interviews talking sarcastically about Mr. Ford and his stands on issues including the estate tax and national security.

The controversy erupted over one of the people featured: an attractive white woman, bare-shouldered, who declares that she met Mr. Ford at a “Playboy party,” and closes the commercial by looking into the camera and saying, with a wink, “Harold, call me.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ford, who is single, said he was one of 3,000 people who attended a Playboy party at the Super Bowl last year in Jacksonville, Fla.

Critics asserted that the advertisement was a clear effort to play to racial stereotypes and fears, essentially, playing the race card in an election where Mr. Ford is trying to break a century of history and become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Will we see a new round of racial politics in 2008? So far the Democratic primary race has avoided such politics, but often GOP-aligned groups mount racially-tinged advertisements in the general election (remember Willie Horton?)

Have voters tired of such racial politics? Keith Reeves, a political scientist at Swarthmore College, has written on black candidates in Voting Hopes Or Fears?: White Voters, Black Candidates & Racial Politics.

Reeves wrote a brief essay folllowing the 2006 election, which recaps his thesis and looks to the future of black electoral politics:

Ten years ago, I published Voting Hopes or Fears? a path-breaking, albeit controversial, book that examines the thorny subject of how black candidates competing in majority-white settings fare, especially against the backdrop of the kind of racially charged campaigns we've seen this election cycle. In it, I argued that decades after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, whites, by and large, remain resistant to the election of blacks to public office. That widespread resistance can be explained, in large part, by election campaign appeals to whites' racial fears and sentiments. Based on fresh empirical evidence examining white voters' attitudes towards black candidates and the racial framing of campaign news coverage, I documented that racial discrimination against black candidates is contemporary, specific, and identifiable....

A significantly changed electoral landscape in 2006 produced something of a political avalanche of opposition - against just about all things Republican (including three high-profile black candidates who ran under the GOP-banner: football-great Lynn Swann of Pennsylvania and Kenneth Blackwell of Ohio, running for governor in their respective states; and Michael Steele who ran a well-orchestrated campaign for a Senate seat in Maryland).

"Have we witnessed the long-awaited death of the Willie Hortonesque political commercial?"

Perhaps, "yes."

For one, changing demographics in both states - and in the country, at large - have a lot to do with voters' disgust of "Swift-Boating" of the racial kind. Meanwhile, moderate, Independent voters appear especially turned off by the racial undercurrents in political advertising.

And then there is the political pressure being brought to bear in the financial marketplace. Reportedly, black leaders and union groups pressured Wal-Mart to cut ties with one of its consultants whose brainchild was the incendiary anti-Ford ad.

But I strongly suspect that there is one other latent factor at work: the looming presence of Illinois senator Barack Obama, a potential candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

In Harold Ford, Jr. and Deval Patrick, white voters saw a bit of Senator Obama in each man: Ivy-League, moderate, articulate, non-threatening, charismatic black men who excite cross-racial appeal while moving past the racial divisions of the civil rights generation.

If there is a broader lesson to be gleaned from Patrick's overwhelming victory and Ford's narrow defeat, it is that, finally, white voters no longer have the appetite for the nasty racial politics historically served up by political campaign operatives.

And to that I say: "Run, Barack! Run!"
I respect Reeves' research, and I hope he's correct that voters will reject subterranean racial politics in 2008.

Barack Obama's rise is extremely promising. Indeed, the Obama campaign's one of the most important developments in American politics since Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign of 1988. Of course, Obama's going to have to get back to the language of personal responsibility if he hopes to have more cross-racial, cross-party appeal. But if anyone can do it, he's the one.