Zero African-American Senators, And What That Means To The Tea Party

It's been quite an election for African-Americans in Congress, and let's just say it hasn't been all that progressive. In the biggest blow: only six African-Americans have served in the Senate in history, and after Illinois appointee Roland Burris' term runs out in January 2011, the number will siphon back down to zero. The lack of representation is disturbing, but the fact takes on a particular brand of nefariousness when considering the Tea Party, as DePaul Law Professor Terry Smith writes in The Huffington Post:

There is an ironic coincidence of timing in the rise of the tea party and the absence of any blacks in the U.S. Senate. One of the tea party movement's major proposals calls for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, a constitutional provision whose enactment was very much entangled with the question of whether blacks would continue to have the right to vote granted them by the 15th Amendment.

Smith goes on to detail the background of the 17th Amendment, which allows Senators to be elected by popular vote. In the early 1910s, Southern Dems tried to attach a rider to the proposal that would have “deprived the federal government of its ability to enforce blacks' right to vote in U.S. Senate elections“:

The tea party's advocacy for repeal of the 17th Amendment obviously isn't tantamount to repealing African Americans' right to vote. Indeed, given the increased numbers and influence of racial minorities in state legislatures, legislative appointment may remedy the embarrassing absence of a black senator that we will be left with after today. But the history of the 17th Amendment should caution tea partiers against loose invocation of states' rights talk. It should also cause our nation to reflect on the dysfunction of a democracy that cannot elect even a single African American to what many view as the world's most powerful deliberative body.

The narrative becomes even more complicated when taking into account conservative African-Americans elected to the House last night, including South Carolina's Tim Scott, who was endorsed by both Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, and Florida's Allen West, also Tea Party-backed.

"Color is becoming less of an issue," said Richard Ivory, a black Republican political consultant and founder of "There was a time when the white electorate saw race first and made judgments based on this alone. While black Republicans and Obama disagree ideologically, both are candidates whose message surpassed pigment."

However, small gains by non-white Republicans, including the election of several Latinos and Indian-American Nikki Haley to governorships, should not be seen as "a substantive embrace of a minority agenda" by the right, according to UCLA professor Mark Sawyer, who directs that university's Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics. He pointed out that while the GOP sought out minority candidates after Obama's election, almost everywhere these candidates were elected had a majority-white population that are against measures popular among blacks and Latinos, such as comprehensive immigration reform. 

In a recent Vibe Magazine story on black Republicans published prior to the elections, Tim Scott fielded questions from a group of African-American Democrats in South Carolina about his political views.

“You’ve proven you can get the job done,” pipes up a respected member of the clergy and a proud Democrat. “But when I listen to words like ‘Obama Care,’ ‘the Nigger plan,’ and ‘Take our country back,’ it’s offensive to me and the people that I represent.”

The members of the audience slowly nod in agreement, while Scott’s shaven head glistens with sweat. Once again, he is left to defend the rhetoric of his entire political party, including those extreme elements.

“I don’t see [the term ‘Obama Care’] as condescending. People say Bush tax cuts all the time or Reaganomics,” he walks the room past the row of round tables, giving the Rev. direct eye contact, before revealing a compromise. “I will use the term ‘National Health Care’ more than I have in the past.”

Still, the Republicans remain the minority party among African-Americans. As Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry puts it in the Vibe article, “The main reason why Blacks don’t go over to Republican Party en masse is not because of some big policy initiative. It is because of things like Black people being left on roofs to die [during Hurricane Katrina]. And what they perceive as racism.” Indeed.

AlterNet / By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Posted at November 3, 2010, 6:22am

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018