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Obama’s Rise As Black Representation Slows

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Feb 28, 2009

The Congressional Black Caucus finally got their much-awaited meeting with Pres. Barack Obama on Thursday. He may be the first black president, but meeting with his fellow black members of Congress was not his first priority, given all the crises his administration faces on the economy, failing banks and Middle East flare-ups.

But there is another reason that has more to do with politics than priorities. It is a great irony that the election of Barack Obama as the first black president comes at a time when the number of black elected officials has been stagnant at best and, at worst, on a downhill slide. It is counterintuitive to the general perception among many, including the mainstream pundits who keep talking about a “post-racial” society.

Think again. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., political think tank, in a study found that the rise in the number of black elected officials has slowed.

The bulk of black officeholders are still mainly concentrated in five states: Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, and Georgia.

Overall, the percentage of black elected officials in relation to all elected officials has remained static in the last decade.

The slowdown is glaringly evident in Congress. The U.S. Senate has had only three, and a disputed fourth, black member since Reconstruction--Massachusetts Republican Ed Brooke and Carol
Moseley-Braun, and Obama’s much disputed interim replacement, Roland Burris. In the House, Congressional Black Caucus membership has had only a modest rise since 1996.

The stagnation in black political strength has hampered the Congressional Black Caucus in its past efforts to get Congress and the White House to support increased commerce, trade and aid to African and Caribbean nations -- as well as greater HIV/AIDS funding, strong backing for affirmative action programs, the passage of tougher anti-racial profiling and hate-crimes laws.
The stagnation in Congress has also meant that it took marches and protests by civil rights leaders to get any national attention on hate crimes, voting irregularities, police abuse, chronic black joblessness, and the gaping racial disparities in health and education. Before Obama’s run, the constraints on black elected officials and the treatment of black voters by top Democrats that was at times cavalier fueled rage and deepened cynicism among many blacks that Democrats care about them only when
they need their votes.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1993 on minority redistricting is another potential peril for black politicians. The court tossed out districts that had been gerrymandered to preserve black population majorities. These so-called race-based districts were mostly in the South and were deliberately drawn to insure that black candidates would perpetually be elected to Congress.

An added dilemma for black voters is that any future increase in the number of black elected officials must come from what are currently majority white districts. Yet, with the exception of former Oklahoma
Rep. J.C. Watts and former Connecticut Rep. Gary Franks-- both Republicans and both conservatives who were elected from majority white districts -- it is still a hard sell for blacks to triumph in non-black majority districts.

The turgidity in black political gains can also be dumped squarely on several phenomena: black voter apathy, alienation, inner-city population drops, suburban integration and displacement by Latinos and Asians who have shown a far greater willingness than blacks to split their votes more evenly among both Republican and Democratic candidates.

To overcome these daunting obstacles, civil rights and black political groups must mount and sustain voter mobilization and education drives aimed at increasing the number of black voters, not just to elect a black president. On the GOP side, the jury is still way out on whether Michael Steele, the new Republican National Committee chair, can budge
the GOP toward fulfilling Bush’s empty pledge to make diversity a watchword in the party.

Black politicians must also expand their agenda to address the needs of Latino and Asian voters. Their support will be absolutely crucial if black politicians expect to hold or win office in the future in districts that were once majority black but are fast changing to majority Latino and Asian districts.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book
is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

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