A New Emerging Class of African American Politicians

Our short attention span fueled by 24/7 cable analysis often means that political commentary lurches from one election to the next and fails to capture major trends that develop over a longer horizon. A perfect example of that is the way that the victory of Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial primary is being analyzed. Both Ed Kilgore and Alan Abramowitz point out that she forged a new path for Democrats in the South. Here’s Kilgore:

African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes…

But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.

Regular readers will note that I wrote something similar yesterday in a post titled, “A New Southern Strategy for Democrats in the Old South,” so I agree with him completely. But it wasn’t until after I wrote that one that I listened to Abram’s victory speech on Tuesday night.

Since you might not have time to watch the whole thing, here’s the theme that ran throughout her remarks:

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

Does that sound like someone who has given up on reaching out to swing voters? I was reminded of something Andrew Levison wrote recently about what Democrats need to do to reach white working class voters.

What is required instead [of specific policies] are Democratic candidates who can convince white working people that they are genuinely “on their side” “will fight for them” “understand their problems” and “share their values.” These are characteristics working people say they consider important again and again on opinion polls.

On the topic of shared values, he writes this:

And integrally connected to these physical aspects of community are shared working class social values—respect for hard work and common sense, a commitment to simple honesty rather than subtle wordplay and a belief that genuine friendship and personal integrity is more valuable than wealth or status.

Later in her speech, Abrams said this:

I am the child of a shipyard worker and a college librarian who were called to become United Methodist ministers. I am a proud daughter of the deep South. And I grew up the second of six children in a family where we struggled to stay above the poverty line, but never struggled to know what was right or to believe in our possibilities. My parents instilled in us the core values of faith, of family, of service and responsibility. Hard work is in my bones.

I’m not sure what else Abrams could say that would throw out the welcome mat to white working class voters. To the extent that they reject her candidacy, it will be for one of two reasons: (1) they didn’t hear her, or (2) they can’t absorb that message coming from a black woman.

All of this reminds me that the path chosen by African American political candidates began to change more than a decade ago. We can forget that one of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 was the support he got almost immediately in the overwhelmingly white state of Iowa. As he went on to win the Democratic nomination, Matt Bai wrote a provocative piece titled, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” While I disagree with some of his analysis, this part stood out to me:

Black leaders who rose to political power in the years after the civil rights marches came almost entirely from the pulpit and the movement, and they have always defined leadership, in broad terms, as speaking for black Americans. They saw their job, principally, as confronting an inherently racist white establishment, which in terms of sheer career advancement was their only real option anyway. For almost every one of the talented black politicians who came of age in the postwar years, like James Clyburn and Charles Rangel, the pinnacle of power, if you did everything right, lay in one of two offices: City Hall or the House of Representatives. That was as far as you could travel in politics with a mostly black constituency. Until the 1990s, even black politicians with wide support among white voters failed in their attempts to win statewide…

This newly emerging class of black politicians, however, men (and a few women) closer in age to Obama and Jesse Jr., seek a broader political brief. Comfortable inside the establishment, bred at universities rather than seminaries, they are just as likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it…Their ambitions range well beyond safely black seats.

As the daughter of ministers and a graduate of Yale Law School, Abrams is the extension of that “newly emerging class of black politicians” whose “ambitions range well beyond safely black seats.” This is a trend that has been developing for a while, with roots in the Civil Rights Movement via doors that were opened by affirmative action at colleges and universities.

What we are witnessing with candidates like Abrams are African Americans who are proud of their heritage and feel no need to run away from who they are and what they stand for. But they are more than simply African American candidates, as Abrams explained.

…on the campaign trail, Abrams doesn’t have to be dragged into talking about race; she leads with it. “My being a black woman is not a deficit,” she told Cosmopolitan earlier this year. “It is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I’m relentless, you know I’m persistent, and you know I’m smart.”

This newly emerging class of black politicians is prepared to say that they have something to offer to all Americans…if we are prepared to accept it from them. That is the racial fault line of this era.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .