Barack Obama resigned from the U.S. Senate on November 16. Roland Burris was sworn in as his replacement yesterday. In the intervening time, there were no black U.S. Senators.There have been relatively few black Senators at all. The first was Hiram Rhodes Revels, elected by the Reconstruction-era Mississippi legislature (state legislatures chose U.S. Senators at that time) in 1870. He resigned to become a college president before serving a full term, but not long afterward Blanche Bruce became the second black senator in Mississippi's other U.S. Senate seat.
After the Reconstruction period until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there were no blacks in Congress at all. The black population in the South was de facto disenfranchised because of literacy requirements, poll taxes, and other legal measures that in practice kept black voters from voting. Once the Voting Rights Act took effect, majority-black districts began electing black members to the U.S. House of Representatives, but until 1992 these were mostly from only nine cities. After the 1990 census, a lot more majority-black districts were gerrymandered to allow for majority-black populations, often from several disconnected communities, to elect black representatives in the House.
Four Senators since Reconstruction have been black. Edward Brooke, a Rockefeller Republican, was elected as the third black senator in U.S. history, this time from Massachusetts during the Civil Rights era. He served two terms, leaving office in 1979 when he was beaten by Paul Tsongas. Carol Mosely Braun served one term from Illinois from 199-1999. She was a moderate liberal on economic issues but very liberal on social issues. She was beaten by Peter Fitzgerald, a rare Republican win in that state. Barack Obama was elected, also from Illinois, in a bad year for Republicans given several GOP scandals in that state, when he had no serious contender as an opponent. Roland Burris was just appointed to replace him, with no electoral process at all. It's fair to say that even the few black Senators in the modern period have largely not gotten there with hard electoral victories and have had a hard time remaining there.
The vast majority of blacks in the House of Representatives have come from majority-black districts, which seems to reflect a general fact that black legislators can't seem to get elected easily from majority-white populations. There have also been few black governors. In 1972, P.B.S. Pinchback served as governor of Louisiana for 35 days at the end of a gubernatorial term that had been vacated due to corruption charges. In the modern period, Douglas Wilder was elected in the 1980s to only one term in Virginia as a moderate and libertarian-leaning Democrat who promised to implement policies contrary to union dogma. Deval Patrick is in his first term in Massachusetss. He ran as a business-friendly Democrat. David Paterson is filling out the remainder of Eliot Spitzer's term as governor of New York. He's governing as a fiscal conservative but is very socially liberal, and many political experts think he's going to have a hard time maintaining his governorship, probably losing in a primary contest to Andrew Cuomo if Cuomo doesn't take Hillary Clinton's Senate spot or possibly losing to someone Rudy Giuliani if he runs for governor. Those are the only four black governors. Only two of them managed to get elected, and both ran as moderates in typically liberal states.
What's the explanation for this, and why is it still true in an age when the nation can elect Barack Obama to the officer of President of the U.S. and Colin Powell can have such high bi-partisan popularity ratings among white voters, even after his association with the Bush Administration and the argument for a very unpopular war (even if he later has distanced himself from that process)? Does Obama's victory not show what so many people think it shows? Does it mean Obama is more the exception and that white people just don't want to elect black people to public office but will occasionally do so if they want to replace an unpopular party and don't want to do so by setting up a Democratic legacy for the Clintons? Is there something about Obama himself that explains why he's different, something that must be true in some sense for these other exceptions? Or is there a different explanation for why so few black politicians can manage to get elected by a mainstream voting public? I think the correct answer to all of the above questions is actually a qualified "yes", but the qualifications are pretty important.
First of all, some factors are relatively innocent. At the very least, they trace back to things no longer in anyone's direct control. Some states simply don't have a lot of black people to run for office. If there aren't many even there, than the chances some will achieve what's necessary to run for office go down an awful lot. Consider Vermont, where Howard Dean was somewhat embarrassed by national Democrats' charges that he didn't have many black people in his inner circle when he was governor there. A lot of that is simply due to there not being that many black people in political circles to be selected for positions in his government. It's a very white state. This plays less of a role in states with a higher black population, but that doesn't mean it doesn't play any role at all. It may affect the numbers. Then there are also the socio-economic factors that make it harder for black people to end up in the position to be able to run for government to begin with and that then reduce the numbers even moreso at higher levels, where even more resources are required. But that isn't the only explanation. It's just part of a much larger story.
Some factors are due directly to white anti-black racism. There are some people who are very resistant to voting for a black person. Some voters admitted to this during the 2008 presidential campaign. Some of them even said that there were factors that overcame that resistance in the case of Barack Obama, usually the economic crisis and some vague impression that somehow he'd be better for it than John McCain even though it had arisen largely from Democratic policies. (Political ignorance about who was even in charge of Congress plays some role here, since a sizable portion of the 2008 electorate thought Republicans have been fully in charge of Congress since 1994. The willingness to attribute any problem arising during a presidency to the president also affects this.) But these people were willing to admit to a bias against voting for a black person.
I'm not sure that's the main explanation, though. There are a lot of people who are willing to vote for a black candidate but who just don't vote for the ones who are running. I wouldn't vote for Barack Obama very easily, but I'd be happy to vote for someone like Michael Steele or J.C. Watts. Political preference really does affect some voters, despite the overwhelming evidence that swing voters usually have no political views whatsoever and usually choose who they vote for based on factors like height and accent. I think this is true even among some who do not heavily identify with a political perspective. Moderates are more likely to get elected to statewide office than extremists except in very strongly politically-aligned states. It did make note in my above summary that several of the black senators and governors were moderate in some way. I should note that the two closest black candidates to the Senate who lost in recent elections were Harold Ford, Jr., a moderate Democrat, and Michael Steele, who is actually a Republican. Neither is ideologically very much like the typical member of his respective party, Ford because he's much more moderate than many Democrats and Steele because he's moderate to conservative in the GOP. Tennessee and Maryland voters didn't actually go for either, but both got enough support to remain continuing figures in politics.
But there are some people who would be comfortable voting for perceived moderates from either party, even if they lean to one party, who resist voting for many black candidates, and I can think of two reasons why this would be so. One is that most black candidates don't come across as moderates the way Barack Obama does, and I note that most of the black politicians in my summary above who managed to win statewide elections have been relatively moderate-sounding on at least certain issues. But here's another reason, and it's a little more sinister. A number of political commentators noticed that there was initial resistance to Barack Obama from the black community. The main reason seems to be that they wanted to see if he could be deemed "black enough", where the word 'black' isn't serving as the usual racial label but refers to black culture, an ethnic rather than racial descriptor.
Obama was not raised ethnically black, even if he's very obviously racially black just because of what he looks like. His mother is white. He was born in Hawaii and partly raised in the rural Midwest. His black father isn't African-American, and he was absent most of his life. What the black community ended up settling on is acceptance. It helped that he'd attended a black church for 20 years and married a black woman who was ethnically black. It also helped that his policies were, on the whole but with a few exceptions (most notably health care), more liberal than Hillary Clinton's, and his rhetoric is more decidedly socialist even if his implementation is very gradualist. So the black community eventually came to accept him as "black enough". What about white voters?
I think the opposite phenomenon occurred. Whites were initially very excited about him, and some (but not enough for him to lose) gradually got off the boat as they came to learn more about him. There weren't many who were initially displeased with him but gradually came to accept him as their candidate (although I do know some that that's true of, particularly among black conservatives who in some cases were simply enamored of the prospects of being able to say "so there" to over-the-top complaints about how badly-off black people are today, a case that's harder to make when the president himself is black).
What is different about Obama? Partly it's his moderate rhetoric and likable manner. I'm not going to deny the significant role that played in winning him acceptance. But notice the difference between him and most black politicians. Most black politicians are decidedly race-focused. When George Will criticized Carol Mosely Braun for having ties to corruption, her only response was to call his criticism racist and bring up the KKK. Why is criticism of a politician for corruption tantamount to carrying out a KKK agenda? To Mosely Braun, a white person criticizing a black politician means racism, because criticizing black people is racist. This is the kind of thinking you expect from certain black politicians, and those who align themselves with race issues very strongly will be perceived as being like this even when they're not. This is how a lot of white voters think, and I think it explains some of the resistance to voting for black candidates. It's not because they're black so much as because they represent a certain attitude toward being black. I recommend Nate Silver's statistician's analysis of the electoral status of blacks in statewide races, with an emphasis on the Senate. One of his conclusions seems to me to be exactly right. One of the explanations for this phenomenon is the very redistricting that led to greater black representation in the House of Representatives. It allowed black candidates to focus their message on getting elected in majority-black districts by heightening racial tension, which damages those same candidates and those who use similar rhetoric when they try to run for statewide office.
Obama is very much not like this, and notice that he had to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, who does come across that way to many whites. He had Jesse Jackson upset at him during the campaign because of this sort of thing. I think this is a huge factor. Many black candidates have represented themselves and black politicians in general in such a black anti-white racist way that it's hard for many white voters to see them as serious candidates unless they see a clear difference. Obama's time in the national light has been different from the outset, with his major speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 as an Illinois State Senator taking a decidely moderate tone about race.
But here's the sinister side. I'm not sure being a plausible black candidate in statewide elections is just due to perceived ideology and tone on race issues. Would someone who looks like Chris Rock but who speaks the way Barack Obama does do as well as Obama did? I wonder if one of the reasons so many white voters were willing to consider Obama enough like them to identify with him is because he's light-skinned and carries himself like a white academic. Would he have done as well if he had skin the color of Clarence Thomas'? It's hard to say for sure. Would he have had as much success if he spoke the way Chris Rock does? Surely not. An accent like that isn't changed by education, but that doesn't stop most white people (and I'm sure many blacks) from hearing it as a sign of lack of education.
You won't hear people publicly making fun of the way Chris Rock speaks the way you hear people making fun of President Bush or Governor Sarah Palin for their regional accents, because the racism charge is too obvious, whereas bigotry against whites for their regional background is much more accepted. But it certainly still affects how people think about someone like Chris Rock. It isn't just because he's an entertainer that people wouldn't treat him all that seriously if he tried to run for public office. After all, Al Franken is a comedian who managed to get elected to the Senate. But he's white, and he speaks in a way that sounds educated, even if his manner and political insight is really not all that different from Rush Limbaugh's. People will therefore give some respect to Franken and Limbaugh, even though the idea of either as a serious politician strikes me as a joke. I don't think Chris Rock could ever garner such respect, and I happen to think he's a pretty smart and very socially observant, enough that his racial humor is among the very best I know of.
So why are there so few black Senators (and, for that matter, governors and even representatives in the U.S. House from majority-white districts)? The explanation isn't very simply. Racism certainly has something to do with it, both direct and immediate in some voters and the racism of previous generations in its indirect effects. But a number of other factors play a role, and a good part of the explanation has to do with which potential black candidates are actually running for these offices, namely the ones who tend to do well at the district level. I think it's interesting that Nate Silver can tie some of the problem to gerrymandered majority-black districts in some ways actually harming those they were intended to help, because this is a kind of argument I have some sympathy with for a number of liberal policies on race (e.g. some aspects of the welfare state and some kinds of affirmative action). It does undermine the narrative that white resistance to black politicians in principle lies behind white resistance to voting for black candidates. But I don't want to dismiss the role that such bias plays, as a lot of conservatives on racial issues might be prone to do. Things aren't usually as simplistic as many want to make them, and electoral politics is one of the most complex social phenomena of all.