Election 2016

A New Glass Ceiling? Why African-American Politicians Face an Uphill Battle for Senate Seats and Governorships

It looks like we will have zero African Americans elected as a Senator or Governor -- what's behind the dismal number?

African Americans make up about 12 percent of the population of the United States, and around 10 percent of the House of Representatives. But only 4 percent of the country's governors are black, and of the approximately 1,900 people who have served in the United States Senate, only six have been African American. There are currently no Senate seats being held by black Americans.

A series of structural barriers appear to make it difficult for African Americans to move up to high state-wide offices – governorships and the U.S. Senate. Jamelle Bouie called it “the other glass ceiling” in a series of articles published in The American Prospect last week. On Sunday, Bouie appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to explain what might be holding black politicians back. Below is a transcript that has been lightly edited for clarity (you can listen to the whole show here).

Joshua Holland: You wrote about the dearth of African-American candidates for high statewide offices in the upcoming 2012 election. There is exactly one African-American candidate for such an office this year, and that is a challenger to the very popular Maryland Democratic senator Ben Cardin, state senator Anthony Muse, who will probably not win that. So this fall there will be zero candidates for governor and the Senate.

Jamelle Bouie: Right.

JH: And you write, “Asked to explain the dearth of blacks in high office most people would point to overt racism and subconscious bias, but it’s not so straightforward.” So what is going on?

JB: It’s a couple things. In the piece I focused on House members in large part because most senators have some experience in the House of Representatives and that’s become more common as time has gone on. So in the last several Congresses if not a majority then a large plurality of sitting senators have served in the House.

Black House members tend to represent more liberal districts and tend to have more liberal voting records. This is because they tend to represent African Americans, who are more liberal than the median American. Majority-minority districts have mainly to do with the Voting Rights Act and simple human geography – that people tend to live near people that are most like them. A liberal voting record means that when you’re running statewide it’s harder to appeal to the median voter.

Likewise, African American House members tend to represent districts in large states. That doesn’t sound like it would be a big issue, but it is. A large state is usually a more expensive media market, and African American House members represent districts that tend to be more downscale. Thus they’re in this tight position of having to raise money for a statewide race without having as strong a fundraising base as someone who might be representing a mostly white and more affluent district.

JH: So you basically have the House as a traditional launching pad for a Senate seat. Right now, about 10 percent of House members are African American, which is close to their proportion overall, but they are having a hard time getting out of that because, as you say, they are representing these black or majority-black districts. You see this catch 22 where they need to raise a lot of money to compete in these big states but they have trouble with that. Tell me about this hurdle they have to overcome. You write, “to prove that 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.”

JB: Pretty much anyone who wants to run for office has to first prove they can raise huge sums of money. Elections in the United States are so candidate-centered. Parties are not usually sending a ton of money to candidates. So it’s key that if you want to run and you intend on challenging an incumbent that you need to be able to raise for a Senate seat millions of dollars and for a House seat hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Political scientists say that politicians first fund-raise from their friends and neighbors. It’s interesting that of the handful of successful, statewide African American politicians, Barack Obama is one of them, represented mixed districts that were a little more affluent and thus they had the opportunity to make connections with and develop networks of powerful fundraisers.

JH: And this overwhelming majority of black members of Congress represent districts in southern states. And it seems to me that race is still a big part of this picture. When you move from your district, which may very well be a majority African-American district, to a statewide race you’re now facing a southern electorate. Tell me about the experience that Harvey Gantt had. He was looking like he was going to be a real up-and-comer, right?

JB: Right. In Harvey Gantt’s case he actually came very close to winning. Given that this was North Carolina in the early '90s, where a moderate or liberal Democrat actually had a very hard time winning. He was running against an incumbent. A 5-point spread at that time was actually very, very narrow.

His problem, as I describe in the piece, was that he had gotten past a lot of the hurdles that make it difficult for black House members or black mayors to run statewide. But he was cut off at the knees by prejudice, by racism. His opponent Jesse Helms ran a very infamous ad, the “Hands” ad, in which the narration was something to the effect of, “You needed that job, but they gave it to a minority,” thus tying Gantt to affirmative action and programs that were perceived to take rightful benefits and rightful jobs from white Americans.

I think that those things are surmountable, but they require a large amount of backing from the party, they require an electorate that is a little more mixed than North Carolina’s was in the early '90s. You can get past the prejudice. It’s just a matter of getting to the point where you actually have an opportunity to.

JH: So it’s another layer of obstacles to overcome. And lest people think that this is a thing of that past, that race happened in 1990, but you also talk about Harold Ford and the “Call Me” ad. What was that?

JB: That ad was not as explicit as the “Hands” ad; the “Hands” ad to me is still remarkable for just how blatantly racist it was. The “Call Me” ad for Harold Ford was simply talking about how Harold Ford, who was single at the time, had gone to the Playboy mansion for a party. In the final scene of the ad is a young white woman saying, “Call me, Harold,” in a very flirtatious voice.

This seems innocuous, but given that Harold Ford was running in Tennessee, given that Harold Ford is an African American, and given that he comes from a dynasty of African-American lawmakers, there are very clear racial implications to the ad. It ran in the fall and it’s not necessarily responsible for sealing Ford’s defeat, but making it very difficult for him to make up the 3-point deficit he had throughout the race.

JH: I don’t know if I agree that it was all that subtle. I mean that was a loud dog-whistle.

JB: I mean I’ve showed it to friends and my black friends say that’s a dog-whistle, and my white friends are like, 'I dunno,' but once you explain it to them they say 'ok that’s a dog-whistle.'

JH: Yeah well, a lot of white folks think that race is a thing of the past. There’s one thing that I think I want to kind of push back on. You write that, “Despite the attacks that took down Gantt and Ford, outright racism isn’t the main reason that keeps African Americans locked out of these highest statewide positions. Rather, it’s the accumulated effect of long-term racial discrimination—the limitations associated with representing heavily black House districts or leading majority-black cities.”And you say that, “If black politicians almost always represent black constituencies, it’s because of historic housing patterns shaped by discrimination.”

Isn’t it the case that congressional districts are not drawn neatly around various communities? There’s long been this so-called “grand bargain” in the South between black Democrats and white Republicans to draw up these safe black districts, to concentrate people of color in these increasingly minority-majority districts. It seems to me that that’s playing into this. Ironically that makes it more difficult to get a statewide office.

JB: That’s absolutely right, but it’s also true that those districts are only possible because African Americans tend to live near each other. About half of African Americans live in the south in places like Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. African Americans tend to live in defined geographical clusters. So while the fact that they are 40-50 percent majority-minority districts you can attribute to gerrymandering, I think regardless of how you did it you’d end up with a district that’s about 20-30 percent black, which would absolutely be better for a black politician running and winning in a district that has more space to get ahead than one running and winning in a district that’s 50 percent black. But I think the fact remains that African Americans just tend to live closer to each other.

JH: Jamelle, I think you made a really interesting point in this piece about Barack Obama. You say that two years before he was elected to the Illinois State Senate he lost a primary race for the US House to a fellow Democrat by the name of Bobby Rush. You posit that if he hadn’t lost that race he might not be president today. Can you unpack that?

JB: Yeah. Basically he runs in the primary against Rush. Rush is representing a heavily black district in Chicago. He loses the primary, and two years later he runs for state senate and wins.

Now, this is all going on during a period of redistricting in Illinois. So, as a state senator Obama uses his influence to have his district gerrymandered to include fewer African Americans and more areas in Chicago where there are affluent whites. And that community of affluent whites and African Americans ends up forming the basis for his senate campaign statewide in 2004. Then that general coalition in the Democratic Party ends up forming the basis for his attempt to win the nomination and his eventual victory.

The ironic thing about his first loss, his first campaign, was that had he won -- had he beat Rush and gone on to win that House seat -- not only would he then be in a position to move up the ranks in House because he would have been occupying a safe seat— with a safe seat he would have had more opportunities to increase his own influence in the House of Representatives—but if he wanted to advance beyond the House he would run into the problems we described.

Eventually I think he would have found that his pathway really only went as far as Chicago. Maybe mayor of Chicago, but it wouldn’t really extend beyond that. By losing he was able to move himself into a different political circumstance, which really did allow him to move up the ladder. Of course a lot of this is circumstance and luck, but I think you can’t underplay the extent and degree to which Barack Obama’s future success depended a lot on the district he represented as a state senator.

JH: Now, I want talk to you about an irony of all of this. You wrote in a follow-up piece that, “while black America is overwhelmingly democratic, it may be that black conservatives have a better shot at statewide office.” Tell me why that is.

JB: It’s almost the reverse of what I describe in the main piece. If you’re a black Republican -- precisely because most African Americans are Democrats or are liberal -- then you’re probably representing a district that’s mostly white. If you’re representing a district that’s mostly white then you’re probably closer to where the median voter is. You also probably have better fundraising ability and opportunities. And because of how these things have worked out so far, you’re probably not stuck in a huge state where African Americans are in a few geographic areas.

So you have all the ingredients for a viable statewide run. While there are only two African Americans serving as Republicans in the House, Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott from South Carolina, Tim Scott is just widely seen as being someone who will be a senator or a governor in a few years time. Theoretically, if African Americans started running and winning in white communities around the country then they would be in a really good position to run statewide. 

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.