This item by J.P. Green was originally published on March 15, 2012.
Jamelle Bouie has an important article, “The Other Glass Ceiling” up at The American Prospect addressing the dearth of African American elected officials in the age of Obama. Indeed, conservative advocates of eliminating section 5 of the Voting Rights Act often argue that it is unnecessary, since having an African American President shows that discrimination in voting laws are largely a thing of the past. As Bouie points out, however, Black Americans are still very much under-represented in our major political institutions:
…Since the momentous 2008 election, there has been no great flowering of black political life, no renaissance in black political leadership. In a year when the first black president is running for re-election, the only African American bidding for a top statewide office is Maryland state Senator C. Anthony Muse, who is challenging Ben Cardin–a well-liked incumbent–in a hopeless race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. At most, by the end of 2012, two of the nation’s 150 governors and senators will be African American.
…If the number of officeholders was in line with African Americans’ share of the population–12.2 percent–there would be at least 12 African American senators and six governors. By contrast, the percentage of African Americans in the House of Representatives is nearly consistent with their share of the population–42 members, or almost 10 percent.
Bouie goes on to discuss plausible demographic and financial reasons for the shortage of Black candidates for these offices, as well as failed efforts by promising candidates, like Harvey Gantt’s bid for U.S. Senate in NC. He notes also the ugly racial stereotypes promoted in GOP ad campaigns designed to gin up irrational fears among white voters, such as GOP political consultant Alex Castellanos’s infamous “hands” ad, which helped Jesse Helms defeat Gantt.
Bouie stops short of exploring possible solutions, no doubt because there are not a lot of viable options available at the moment. Democrats, of course have done much better than Republicans in electing African Americans and other people of color, as well as women, to office. But there is no question that Dems have also failed to make much of an effort to achieve anything resembling proportional representation in terms of race and gender.
One thing that is needed is an active policy driven by a conscious commitment on the part of the national and state Democratic Parties to recruit, train and fund more African American, Latino and Women candidates. Some state Democratic parties do better than others, but there is enormous room for improvement everywhere.
Perhaps a special effort to recruit potential African American, Latino and women leaders from the ranks of organized labor and business would yield more viable state-wide candidates. But there has to be a real commitment to providing them with the needed financial and training resources.
One thing remains clear: The dearth of people of color and women candidates is an embarrassment to a party which bills itself as the hope of a more progressive society. All of the legitimate demographic and financial obstacles notwithstanding, Democrats must more forcefully address this issue at the national and state levels. In doing so, we just might find a pivotal asset in the struggle for a more permanent progressive majority.