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