Gaining representation in the U.S. Senate remains a glass ceiling for African-American politicians, despite significant strides in winning seats in the House of Representatives during the 50 years since the March on Washington.
It’s a fact often overlooked after Barack Obama, the most recent and only the third popularly elected African-American senator in history, capped off a rapid ascent from state legislator to commander-in-chief in just four years.
“It’s extraordinary when you look at it in the context that Obama was able to leap from a state senator to being a U.S. Senator to the presidency, because that’s been far from what other African-American politicians have accomplished,” said Frederick Harris, director of the African American Politics and Society Workshop at Columbia University.
“With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we added significant numbers of African-Americans into the Congress, more adequately representing our numbers in terms of population in the country, but not fully representing those numbers,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards. “I still think we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve got some work to do.
How have things changed for African-American politicians in the past 50 years?
- In 1963, there were just five black members of Congress, according to the House historian. Currently there are 41 voting members in the House of Representatives.
- In 1963, there were no sitting African-American senators in Congress -- and there wouldn’t be until three years later, when Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts became the first African-American popularly elected to the Senate.
- Half of the states have never elected an African-American member of Congress. Only 25 have ever sent a black representative to the House.
- Only three states have ever elected black senators -- Mississippi (during Reconstruction), Illinois and Massachusetts -- but South Carolina and New Jersey could soon join that list.
- After Brooke, there have been only two other popularly elected black senators -- Carol Moseley Braun and now-President Obama, both Democrats from Illinois.
- Briefly this year, there were two sitting African-American senators for the first time in history, with Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrat Mo Cowan of Massachusetts. Scott was appointed to the Senate to fill the seat vacated by Jim DeMint’s resignation, and will run for -- and is favored to win -- a full term in 2014, which would make him the first African-American to popularly win a Senate seat in the South. Cowan temporarily filled John Kerry’s vacated seat before Democrat Ed Markey was elected in a June special election.
After October there’s a good chance those numbers could grow if Democrat Cory Booker wins the New Jersey special election. Then, Booker would be only the fourth popularly elected African-American senator. If both Booker and Scott win re-election in 2014, it would be the first time in history the Senate had two popularly elected African-American members.
Records for African-Americans seeking executive offices at the highest state levels have been similarly dismal. In 1989, Democrat Douglas Wilder made history in Virginia, not only becoming the first black governor since Reconstruction but winning in the former headquarters of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until 2006, when Deval Patrick won in Massachusetts, that the country got its second African-American governor. In New York, David Paterson briefly assumed the governorship after Eliot Spitzer stepped down, but amid scandal didn’t run for a term in his own right.
The disparity is even starker with Obama’s rapid ascension, proving that he could build not only statewide but also national coalitions -- twice.
“It’s woeful,” said Edwards of the lackluster success Democrats have had statewide. “I think part of it is making sure that we really identify as part of the talent pool when it comes to running for statewide office. Certainly we have people of great capacity in a lot of places.”
Redistricting has been a key ingredient for the dramatic rise in African-American politicians in the House with majority-minority districts, designed to elect black politicians and boost their numbers. A decade after the Voting Rights Act's passage in 1965, which helped increase the number of minority districts, black representation had tripled and continued to steadily rise.
The formula hasn’t been foolproof, but it’s helped others get a foothold into higher office.
But to African-Americans, the key is winning outside of those districts designed for them to win, expanding their coalitions in those places as building blocks for larger campaigns.
“Ironically, in majority-minority districts, African-American politicians don’t break out, mostly because they have to serve constituencies that expect them to target policies that concern issues on racial inequality which for many, if not most white voters, is something they’re simply not interested in,” said Harris. “It’s the perception of these candidates that doesn’t allow them to be successful as candidates.”
“I think part of winning a statewide office is also the capacity to put together a wide ranging and diverse coalition that’s built on race and ethnicity and religion and gender and all of the things that make us diverse, and that’s a winning coalition,” said Edwards.
It hasn’t been for a lack of trying by some candidates, and often it’s party, not race, that’s been the barrier. In Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr., came close in 2006 in a good year for Democrats, but fell short. The same year for Republicans, Ken Blackwell lost a bid for governor in Ohio. There were high hopes for Artur Davis in 2010’s gubernatorial election in Alabama, but he was attacked as too conservative and didn't make it out of the primary. Davis has now switched to become a Republican.
Politicians point to other elected officials who give them hope they can break other barriers, beyond hoping to keep an African-American as governor for 2014 and hoping to historically elect two black senators. Frequently mentioned as future candidate include California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed or now-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor.
“Just because we’ve completed 50 years and we’ve made some significant progress doesn't mean there’s not a ton of work to be done,” said Edwards.