Ten years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass found himself in a fight with fellow Republicans over the extent to which the party of Lincoln should demand the enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
Douglass supported civil rights legislation that would enforce the amendments that freed the slaves and gave them equal social and voting rights, while many Republicans shrank from it, arguing that such legislation would amount to too much too soon and bring about a backlash from moderates and conservatives. Douglass, however, would not be cowed. In his column in The New National Era, he argued that Congress should enforce the Constitution, even if some people were uncomfortable with the pace of progress. We cannot wait, he wrote, “until the nation is educated up to giving us something more.”
Douglass’s defense of black political advocacy a century and a half ago highlights an abiding tension in American racial politics. Should civil rights activists work for swift or incremental change? Should black activists temper their demands in an attempt to win over skeptical nonblacks? Should fears of backlash temper efforts at racial redress? These questions have echoed throughout the past 150 years, recurring in the debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and in the tensions between Martin Luther King Jr. and accommodationists on his right and black nationalists on his left. In the past four decades, the debate has emerged yet again as racialized and deracialized black politicians have vied for political office and, in doing so, redefined the contours of modern African American politics.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights estimated that in 1964 there were only about 300 black elected officials in the United States. By 1970, that number had swelled to nearly 1,500, as many black activists, heeding civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s call to move “from protest to politics,” began to run for elective office for the first time. While many of these so-called “first black” politicians, like Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and California Congressman Ron Dellums, made conciliatory overtures to their nonblack constituents, issues of race defined their candidacies and their tenures in office. Socialized in black activist movements and informed by their personal experiences with de facto and de jure racism, these politicians actively courted black voters and embraced civil rights issues as part of their campaign platforms. Most often, their campaign rhetoric made note of the historic significance of their candidacies and emphasized policy issues, like police brutality or affirmative action, that were designed as overtures to blacks.
As a result, trailblazing politicians like Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson often faced steep opposition from white voters. Many whites at the time feared that black elected officials would institute punitive policies in retaliation for Jim Crow. Others expressed doubts about the competence of black politicians; some were merely prejudiced. At the mayoral level, many in this first wave of black politicians won office only after white voters split their votes between two white candidates, or after large numbers of whites had fled the city. Through the early 1980s, the first-black mayors of large cities usually won less than a quarter of the white vote in their initial elections.
Once in office, this first wave of black politicians, particularly mayors, faced major obstacles. The stagnation of the U.S. economy in the 1970s and early ’80s exacerbated the decomposition of urban communities, which were already crumbling under the weight of deindustrialization, white and middle-class-black flight, and shrinking revenues. As a result, many of these first- black mayors had to shelve ambitious antipoverty plans in favor of targeted set-aside programs that only benefited small segments of the black middle class, or downtown redevelopment efforts that erected large buildings but created few permanent jobs.
Despite these shortcomings, first-wave black politicians were often reelected. Some, like Michigan Congressman John Conyers, still serve. Others, like Mayor Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, or Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, held office for more than a decade. Part of their electoral success can be attributed to black voters’ pride in reelecting these men to office, and part of it can be attributed to the fact that nearly all these cities were witness to a dramatically shrinking white electorate throughout these decades. In Gary, for example, Hatcher was wildly unpopular among white voters, who accused him of funneling federal grant money exclusively to black neighborhoods. One predominantly white neighborhood even attempted to de-annex from the city under his watch. Regardless, Hatcher was elected repeatedly, winning a total of five terms as mayor, almost exclusively on the support of a mostly black constituency.
The highly racialized politics of this era, epitomized by Hatcher and Mayor Marion Barry in Washington, D.C., raised new questions and tensions. While first-wave black elected officials successfully appealed to racial solidarity, they often failed to fix problems like soaring urban crime rates and the often dysfunctional state of public services, which were the target of legitimate criticism. And there were also larger questions about whether the racialized rhetoric that worked in majority-black enclaves would turn off voters in nonblack jurisdictions. As a result, some scholars began suggesting as early as the 1970s that black candidates run race-neutral campaigns.
In a 1973 address to the National Urban League Convention, political scientist Charles Hamilton proffered deracialization as an antidote to the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy.” Since Republicans were using racially coded language, like “law and order” or “anti-busing,” to prime antiblack resentments among whites, Hamilton urged black candidates to cast their agenda in racially transcendent terms. He suggested that, instead of promoting racially targeted remedies for black-white inequality, black candidates should emphasize their support for universal measures that would appeal to all Americans.
While some first-wave black politicians, like Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, adopted deracialization as early as the 1970s, the strategy really gained prominence in the ’80s. Observers point to the 1989 election as a watershed moment for validating the efficacy of deracialization, with a second wave of deracialized black candidates winning a slew of mayoral seats across the country, in places as varied as Seattle, New York City, New Haven, and Durham, North Carolina. In addition, Douglas Wilder, whose campaign flouted racial stereotypes by emphasizing issues like law and order and fiscal conservatism, became Virginia’s (and America’s) first elected black governor. Not only did these candidates win office in places where blacks often did not make up a majority of the electorate, they also did so with significant support from white voters.
While these elections demonstrated that a deracialized strategy could work, it was hardly a panacea. For starters, race-neutral campaigns were not necessarily synonymous with good management. New York Mayor David Dinkins, for instance, lost after only one term to Rudolph Giuliani, who accused him of mismanaging the city. In addition, a black politician’s decision to deemphasize race did not preclude race becoming a factor in his election bid. For instance, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt twice lost a U.S. Senate bid to Jesse Helms, who made explicit appeals to white racial solidarity.
To critics of deracialization, failures like Gantt’s were evidence of the futility of avoiding race as a crucial aspect of a black politician’s campaign. These detractors also worried that, if elected, deracialized officials were at greater risk of alienating their nonblack constituents if they ever took a side in a racial controversy. They contended that this would probably make deracialized politicians more risk averse and less likely to use their offices to provide needed relief for struggling communities of color.
Second-wave black political executives, most of whom were elected in the 1980s and ’90s, have largely exited the political arena. Wilder, who was constitutionally prevented from running for reelection as Virginia’s governor, made a short-lived bid for the presidency in 1992. He would later serve one term as mayor of Richmond, leaving office in 2009. Kurt Schmoke, who served as mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999, retired from politics to enter private law practice and eventually became dean of Howard University Law School. Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who took power after the disappointing tenures of Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion Barry, also retired from public office in 2007.
Over the last decade, journalists and pundits have eyed a third wave of black politicians. These new challengers, epitomized by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and President Barack Obama, are deracialized in a way that the previous generation was not. Born after about 1960, they are too young to have been involved in the civil rights movement, and, unlike their predecessors, they do not have personal experience with codified discrimination. Because of their experience in more diverse environs, they project a social ease that mainstream donors and political insiders quickly noticed. The third wave’s approach to deracialization is often more philosophical than strategic, and is born out of their positive experience in a more integrated America.
Fresh out of the country’s most prestigious graduate schools and armed with data-driven techniques with which to run their campaigns and measure their policy performance, third-wave politicians have been unafraid to challenge black, particularly racialized, incumbents. For example, in 2002, Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated former assistant U.S. attorney, successfully challenged five-term Congressman Earl Hilliard for the Democratic nomination in Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District. In suburban Atlanta, Denise Majette, a Yale- and Duke-educated lawyer, beat five-term incumbent Cynthia McKinney for the Democratic nomination in Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District.
In many cases, these third-wave challengers have garnered more favorable mainstream media coverage by projecting less threatening images than their racialized opponents. In response, their opponents have often tried to defend their turf using strident racial appeals, which appear buffoonish to some and anachronistic to others. In Newark, for example, Booker, a Stanford- and Yale-educated former Rhodes Scholar, became a national media darling by projecting a telegenic and deracialized image in his 2002 bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, whose strident racial rhetoric provided a stark contrast. Booker lost that first mayoral bid, but four years later James declined a rematch against him, paving the way for Booker’s easy victory.
In other cases, third-wave black politicians have successfully won higher offices by capitalizing on their family names. Harold Ford Jr. and Kendrick Meek succeeded their parents in Congress, and Jesse Jackson Jr. used his name to win a special election to Congress after another up-and-coming black politician, former Rhodes Scholar Mel Reynolds, resigned in the midst of a sex scandal.
While third-wave black politicians have had their successes in the last decade, they have not been immune to the vicissitudes of politics. Some have come under fire from the black establishment itself, which has criticized these younger politicians for not “paying their dues,” for lacking the requisite life experience, and for merely running for office to pad their resumes for future bids for higher offices. These criticisms are amplified when third-wave politicians face the same governing challenges that earlier politicians faced, such as rising crime rates, difficult union negotiations, or personal scandals.
In addition, third-wave black politicians have not escaped racial attacks. For example, former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr.’s senatorial ambitions succumbed to traditional racial stereotyping when the Republican National Committee ran an attack ad that primed fears of interracial sexual relations by featuring a flirtatious blonde who suggested that she had met Ford at the Playboy Mansion.
Finally, third-wave black politicians have sometimes struggled to balance support between black and nonblack voters. Like their second-wave counterparts, they have attempted to walk a treacherous line between invoking deracialized language and not being tone-deaf to the interests of their black constituents. For example, in 2010, Artur Davis failed to win the Alabama Democratic gubernatorial primary, in which blacks were a key constituency. Davis’s long-standing tension with Alabama’s black political establishment hurt his candidacy, as did his vote against Obamacare—a move that Davis had hoped would help him win over conservative white voters in a general election.
Similarly, in Washington, D.C.’s 2010 Democratic mayoral primary, black voters supported the more racialized City Council President Vincent Gray over deracialized incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty. A successful technocratic reformer popular among business elites and whites, Fenty lost support among black voters because of his tough stance toward teacher’s unions and perceived indifference to concerns about gentrification.
Paradoxically, Barack Obama’s election and reelection, in which he won more than 93 percent of the black vote, may mark the end of the era in which we can blithely assume that black voters will rally around a black candidate. While the majority of black voters agree with the president politically—and this alone can explain their voting behavior in 2008 and 2012—it is also true that some people rallied around the racial significance of his candidacy to both support and oppose.
This type of racially motivated voting is certainly evident in historic elections where a black person is running for the first time. In the future, though, that trend may subside, as black candidates will no longer benefit from the novelty of electing or reelecting a “first black.” Third- and fourth-wave black politicians, aiming to maintain the same record levels of support and turnout among black voters that Obama achieved, will have to do so on the strength of their policy platforms and outreach, and not only on the appeal of a familiar skin color.
The 2012 presidential election also highlights new challenges of diversity in American politics. Despite a large black turnout in 2008 and 2012, Obama won largely because of his increased support from Latino and Asian American voters, who made up a larger share of the electorate than ever before. These voters have policy interests that must be addressed, and they have community leaders who also harbor aspirations for high political office. Black politicians looking to follow in Obama’s footsteps will have to negotiate the interests of those communities and develop a brand that appeals beyond the basic black-white paradigm.
During his first term, Obama drew fire from black and Latino elites for not doing enough to provide targeted remedies for problems such as unemployment or immigration, which are of particular interest to communities of color. Given the 2012 election results, minority voters clearly had forbearance, but the question remains whether they will be patient in the next term. Will a lame-duck Obama advance a targeted policy agenda that addresses the specific concerns of minority constituencies, or will he maintain his racially transcendent posture as a matter of principle? Will minority voters remain satisfied with his “rising tide lifts all boats” approach to economic policy? His response, and the reaction of American voters, will likely set the tone for future generations of black elected officials, who will confront an increasingly diverse landscape and evolving demands for racial and ethnic redress.