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From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama: African American Political Success, 1966-2008

From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama: African American Political Success, 1966-2008

by Dennis S. Nordin

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In 2008, American history was forever changed with the election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first African American president. However, Obama was far from the first African American to run for a public office or to face the complexities of race in a political campaign. For over a century, offices ranging from city mayor to state senator have been


In 2008, American history was forever changed with the election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first African American president. However, Obama was far from the first African American to run for a public office or to face the complexities of race in a political campaign. For over a century, offices ranging from city mayor to state senator have been filled by African Americans, making race a factor in many elections.

In From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama, Dennis S. Nordin navigates the history of biracial elections by examining the experiences of a variety of African American politicians from across the country, revealing how voters, both black and white, respond to the issue of race in an election.
The idea to compare the African American political experience across several levels of office first occurred to Nordin as he was researching Arthur W. Mitchell’s 1934 congressional campaign. The question of white voter support was of particular significance, as was whether the continuation of that support depended upon his avoiding minority issues in office. To begin answering these questions and others, Nordin compares the experiences of eleven African American politicians. Taken from across the country to ensure a wide sample and accurate depiction of the subject, the case studies examined include Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles; David Dinkins, mayor of New York; Freeman Bosley Jr., mayor of St. Louis; Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts; Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois; Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia; and Representative J. C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, among others. As Nordin analyzes these individuals and their contribution to the whole, he concludes that biracial elections in the United States have yet to progress beyond race.

From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama investigates the implications of race in politics, a highly relevant topic in today’s American society. It offers readers a chronological overview of the progress made over the last several decades as well as shows where there is room for growth in the political arena. By taking a pertinent topic for the era and placing it in the context of history, Nordin successfully chronicles the roles of race and race relations in American politics.

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University of Missouri Press
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From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama

African American Political Success 1966–2008
By Dennis S. Nordin

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1977-0

Chapter One

Deracializing or Racializing Campaigns

From many angles and perspectives, race as a factor in American life has received considerable attention. Some assessments emphasize its persistence and others emphasize a gradual demise. In determining the role of race in elective politics, revisionists assert that a path to electoral victories opened for African American office seekers in the late 1980s when victories had become possible even where black voters were a decisively outnumbered minority. What is suggested as the winning formula is, in effect, more like sealing a pact with the devil. It might substantially increase odds for white approval, but the actual requirement for gaining white acceptance, appearance suggests, is something akin to Joe Hardy's desperate deal in Damn Yankees. As with the baseball player in this musical comedy, the compromising strategists recommend that the requisite for the success of any black candidate's campaign—in those cases where white votes are needed in order to win—is some "soul" bartering by the minority office seeker in order to garner white votes. The key factor in such tradeoffs is to resist all temptations to discuss or demonstrate any substantial interests in basic African American issues such as affirmative action. The "smart" African American candidate will never insist or even imply that more tax revenues should go to poor people.

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom are among the advisors who have urged blacks to sell out on the race issue in order to garner white votes, citing several examples of how non-engagement has worked. In their book, America in Black and White, they showcase and admire—as evidence of how generously white electorates can be at rewarding pliancy with votes—several victories by African Americans whose campaigns and actions have generally ignored race. In contrast were the "old-school civil rights warriors [with their] little concern for white sensibilities." These were the militant, offensive Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members, the Thernstroms chide. For particular criticism, the scholarly couple single out William Clay, a Democratic congressman from Missouri and a CBC leader, for a vituperative letter he wrote to Republican Representative Gary Franks after the latter's 1996 reelection loss in Connecticut. In the letter Clay described the GOP loser as "a Negro Dr. Kevorkian [whose Capitol Hill ambition had been] to maim and kill other blacks for the gratification and entertainment of ... ultraconservative white racists."

The implication from the Thernstroms—and from other scholars who agree with them on how African American politicians can achieve political success in the white world—is that they must intuitively discover a "new black politic"; the formula, in other words, that is based on pleasing whites by ignoring race. Had the Thernstroms scrutinized the career paths and activities of Chicago Machine—supported Mitchell and Dawson, or to some extent even those of Senator Edward Brooke III of Massachusetts, they might have learned something about how these three had mastered the art of steering clear of white voter concerns and worries about electing African Americans. White support bestowed upon Mitchell, Dawson, and Brooke demonstrates how these politicians understood the thresholds of unacceptable behavior and their knowledge of the perils entailed in crossing the invisible racial line. Decades earlier, these three had just as much awareness of the dangers to their political careers as the several practitioners singled out for adulation and praise by the Thernstroms. The pioneering Chicago pair and several others who followed them into elected offices with Machine backing did not engage in offering racially charged, provocative solutions to the many unique problems faced by African Americans, nor did they tend to raise serious objections to racism.

Although the Thernstroms have probably provoked more reactions to their advice than other analysts with similar counsel, suggestions from other scholars also deserve mention. As early as 1971, Matthew Holden Jr., in an article titled "Black Politicians in the Time of the 'New' Urban Politics," counseled African American politicians to "ready themselves to explore the potentialities of a détente with the 'white ethnics.'" Sensing a change of attitudes and the possibilities of white voters shedding the race issue as the final determiner of whom to elect for political offices, the Democratic National Committee in 1976 asked political scientist Charles V. Hamilton of Columbia University to find a smart course of strategic action and to report back to party leaders. The result was simple advice: direct African American candidates seeking white votes to refrain from alienating those voters—in other words, downplay race by ignoring it. As Hamilton explained, "de-racialization does not presume the absurd—that racism is no longer a critical factor in American life.... Instead, it is precisely because racism is still ... a most prevalent, oppressive force in this society that Blacks—as Blacks—must be ever mindful of our collective interests, our collective resources, and our collective capacities. The burden, if we are as a group to be capacious, is to be as collectively calculating as we are frequently cacophonous."

A noteworthy discussion on race and politics by a twenty-one-member panel emerged as a published manual containing instructions on how African American candidates running for office might succeed with electorates consisting of white voters to such extent that African American office seekers, to be successful, must obtain a significant percentage of the Caucasian vote. The result of a one-day symposium during 1983, held under the auspices of the Joint Center for Political Studies (JCPS), the publication featured a diversity of opinions by several contributors on the subject of how to elect African Americans with white support. Andrew J. Young, in the preface, put the proposition succinctly by suggesting a "black candidate running to win must perform a balancing act: holding and strengthening a black base while reaching out to the rest of the population for support." In order to counter race as the issue against white opponents, the general consensus was that taking the initiative on race would constitute the best strategy—doing what one panelist called advocating "incremental blackness," or the act of being first out in public with one's racial background. Republican pollster V. Lance Tarrance, a key advisor who in 1982 assisted George Deukmejian's defeat of African American Tom Bradley's bid for California's governorship, suggested that, for publicity purposes, specially arranged ethnic groups should always surround an African American candidate in need of Caucasian support to win elections. Always showing an African American office seeker among evenly split racial groups, Torrance contended, provides a subtle message that the African American running for office could succeed at "pulling the races together."

More suggestions followed between 1989 and the early 1990s, after several touted landmark African American wins with varying degrees of white support. Three assessments followed, describing how these victories were achieved: Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza's The Scar of Race, Carol Swain's Black Faces, Black Interests, and Katherine Tate's From Protest to Politics. Reviewer Linda Williams discovered similarities among these three works—that is, the argument "that the politics of race has changed." Candidates' color no longer seemed to determine per se how the white vote might go. What seemed to prevail as the most important factor in the minds of many white voters now was the sharing of views. Swain even went so far as to claim African Americans could achieve meaningful representation without benefit of gerrymandered African American districts.

In 1990 and 1993 respectively, William Julius Wilson in "Race—Neutral Programs and the Democratic Coalition" looked at successes by African American political aspirants, and Georgia A. Persons collected a number of essays entitled Dilemmas of Black Politics. They found more or less the same bases for victories: stridency was the attribute to avoid. As much as "overt racial appeals" worked well among minority-majority electorates, "insurgency ... provoked white resistance" everywhere else. Persons added that, as much as "the black presence in American politics has traditionally been associated with the threat of system-changing action, the new crossover politics [author's emphasis] significantly disassociates the black presence from system challenge and instead emphasizes the 'positive symbolism' of race."

Studies to ascertain under which circumstances whites have opted to elect minority candidates reveal several trends. Questioning if there is any importance in "being one of us," Jane J. Mansbridge answers with a "contingent 'yes.'" Unlike normative theorists or empirical political scientists, she appreciates the value of "descriptive" representatives who are "typical of the larger class of persons whom they represent." Mansbridge's critics respond that this is an incorrect assessment, however. Citing degrees of diversity among the racial minority, they find interracial common ground based upon social position and, thus, a shared purpose permeating the middle class. When given opportunities to prove this, African American elected officials can, according to Zoltan L. Hajnal, put to rest white fears of losing influence. However, situations where blacks have obtained power because of a plurality work against goodwill and assurance. Hajnal summarizes, "A higher percentage of blacks in the city means greater antiblack affect [sic], increased racial resentment, and a greater sense of racial group conflict as well as less willingness to support school integration or special assistance to blacks."

A quartet of scholars produced an article entitled "Black Candidates, White Voters," to demonstrate their understanding of racial bias. Scholars Carol K. Sigelman, Lee Sigelman, Barbara J. Walkosz, and Michael Nitz categorize African American candidates into three groupings: "the Jesse Jackson-style activist," "the Kurt Schmoke-style pragmatist," and "the Clarence Thomas-style conservative." With these classifications in mind, the authors explore African American electability in places where whites hold the balance between victories and defeats. They caution that, "even though conservative and middle-of-the-road minority candidates face formidable obstacles, their ability to project competent leadership, 'mainstream' values, and special understanding of so-called compassion issues make them viable competitors for white votes traditionally withheld from minority candidates."

Ronald Walters understood there to be "a veritable conspiracy by some media analysts to create" what he quotes Congresswoman Maxine Waters' characterization of "a neutered black official that's been 'mainstreamed' not [to] be an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised." Yet there have been other elements also in the equation of success. One factor is skin color. Nayda Terkildsen has studied skin color as a component in the decision-making process, and her research has led to a most interesting preliminary conclusion that "the dark-skinned black candidate was evaluated much more harshly [by white voters] than his lighter skinned peer." Party affiliation is another key variable. Given Republican positions on many social and economic questions, some whites perceive an African American GOP candidate, due to party affiliation, as being safer than an African American Democrat. Pamela Johnston Conover and Stanley Feldman conclude "party cues figured prominently in the voters' assessments of ... candidates' positions." Although Conover and Feldman's reference was not in regards to African American candidates seeking white votes, it makes sense to infer as much about its applicability.

A most decisive bifurcation of attitudes and reactions in how a white majority views the African American minority occurred during the sixty years after World War II. For roughly the first thirty years or so, according to Andrew Hacker, "white Americans found themselves embarrassed by blatant cases of discrimination." Then a shift in attitude took place—from being "willing to support measures aimed at assisting blacks" to reacting negatively to aid programs. The change, notes Hacker, has had partisan implications. "One of the two major parties—the Republicans—has all but explicitly stated that it is willing to have itself regarded as a white party, prepared to represent white Americans and defend their interests." Reconstructing district boundaries to make them more racially homogeneous has resulted in more African American elected officials in both state legislatures and Congress. In the process, Hacker and other analysts observe, a corresponding loss of minority influence has occurred. Often in order to win in mixed-race jurisdictions, candidates needed to rely somewhat on African American support, a reality that tended to liberalize representation. Department of Justice attorneys under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush clearly understood the link and its consequences for fostering a conservative agenda, and this comprehension by the attorneys from the two administrations led to litigation for the creation of predominantly racial minority districts. The motive behind these efforts of the Reagan and Bush administrations to affect more predominantly black congressional districts was transparent as something more than interest in giving African Americans a greater voice in government. By gerrymandering districts in order to render a few of them essentially all-black enclaves instead of biracial ones, the Republicans realized, with the subsequent increase in the number of racially polarized districts, the office seekers running in the increased number of white jurisdictions would no longer need to appeal to the minority's special interests in order to win elections.

The pro-race agenda of African American officeholders from majority-minority enclaves has tended to deepen the interracial division separating white and African American voters. Social psychologists Myron Rothbard and Oliver P. John, in their provocative article "Intergroup Relations and Stereotype Change," express pessimism about the change to more single-race districts, seeing it occurring "glacially." There is logic behind their negative conclusion; statements and demands from African Americans concerning their expectations of their elected officials have done little to ease white fears. At work is a process of interracial competition that is both easily explained and difficult to overcome. M. E. Olsen's thesis, paraphrased by Michael W. Giles and Arthur Evans in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, follows this reasoning: "As racial and ethnic groups develop, they seek to maximize their power, privilege, and prestige by restricting membership to a limited circle of eligible persons.... Hence closure among the advantaged serves to maintain the stratification order, while the solidarity promoted by less advantaged groups represents a challenge to that order." As African American Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi once noted about the likelihood of an African American voter backing his GOP opponent, Hayes Dent, "A vote for Dent is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. There's no way you'll vote for your [own] execution."

Moderating on race can only occur when white candidates need African American votes to win, but the likelihood of either of these scenarios occurring is not great. Theoretically, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 should have desegregated residential patterns, but only rarely have substantially integrated neighborhoods resulted. Separation of the races has brought stereotyping. When pollsters have asked Caucasians for an evaluation or an assessment of African Americans, attitudinal surveys reveal much negativity concerning the minority. A 1991 polling of 1,841 whites showed to what extent they were blaming racial minority members for poverty and other social problems such as high rates of illegitimate births. Some 33–50 percent of respondents evaluated African Americans as "lazy" and "violent," while 59.7 percent considered the minority to be lacking in self-discipline.

These stereotyped perceptions of African Americans by whites entail many political consequences. In Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz's interpretation, the marketing of Clarence Thomas to socially conservative whites involved portraying George H.W. Bush's African American Supreme Court nominee as a man who had worked hard to raise himself by his own bootstraps. A self-serving autobiography entitled Confronting the Future testifies to alleged achievements—Thomas the author interpreting them as resulting from his Thomas's personal preferences for individual initiative and hard work rather than from liberal government spending—in contrast to the formula pushed by CBC members and their liberal Democratic allies as the way to facilitate minority gains. Offering these testimonials of success as the result of personal diligence and determination, the Republicans ably satisfied whites who were unwilling to pay more taxes in order to support programs that were beneficial to African Americans. The keys to understanding why so few African Americans have won at-large elections are the stereotyped images and perceptions of what African Americans expect and demand from the government. Scholar Linda Williams puts it succinctly when she observes that "the number of blacks holding office occurs disproportionately in areas having a black majority." All evidence, she concludes, points to the fact that negative stereotypes and white-bloc voting continue to handicap minority political candidates, but an occasional success can occur if these candidates adopt and emphasize what she calls a "PIES" strategy of "pragmatism, independence, experience, and skills."


Excerpted from From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama by Dennis S. Nordin Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Dennis S. Nordin is a retired historian. He is the author of five other books, including The New Deal's Black Congressman: The Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. He lives in Starkville, Mississippi.

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