An ‘Obama effect’ for African-American politicians?

Four years after Obama’s historic election, have things changed for African-American politicians? What about the mindset of US voters? interviewed Andra Gillespie, a leading specialist in race and US politics, for some insight.


In the wake of President Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008, prominent African-American civil rights leader and professor Julian Bond said: “A divide that existed between the political fortunes of black and white Americans has just been erased, and I guess it’s been erased for all time.”

Andra Gillespie (Credit: Lucretia Coley Holden)
Andra Gillespie (Credit: Lucretia Coley Holden)

But four years later, with Obama currently favoured to win re-election in a bruising match-up against Republican Mitt Romney, the picture is more complex. interviewed Dr. Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, specialist in African-American politicians, and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America”.

Here are highlights from the conversation.

FRANCE 24: What has been the impact of Barack Obama’s election on the African-American political class?

Andra Gillespie: There are things now that appear to be more possible than four years ago. Obama has definitely made other black politicians realise that their ambitions are more realistic. No one can look at an African-American political candidate and think that he or she doesn’t have a chance because of his or her race. And some of the places where we’ve seen the biggest growth in the number of black politicians are areas where blacks are not a significant presence. So we’ve had the breakthrough. But the challenge is to make it consistent.

In terms of absolute numbers of black elected officials at the very highest level, things haven’t changed much. It is still difficult for African-Americans to attain seats in the US Senate. There is currently only one black state governor [Deval Patrick of Massachusetts] and two black lieutenant governors (a deputy governor).

African-Americans have an easier time getting elected to the House of Representatives, partly because many are elected from areas with a significant number of black voters. Interestingly, compared to their respective shares of the black and white populations in America, there is a higher proportion of black women in Congress than white women.

It’s also easier for black mayors to be elected [compared to black US senators], because it’s a lower-level office. Most black mayors represent cities that have African-American populations of at least 30%. But that’s not always the case: Mia Love is mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah; Wellington Webb was, and Michael Hancock is currently, mayor of Denver; Norm Rice was mayor of Seattle. Those are cities with very small African-American populations.

F24: What about the impact of Obama’s election on the mindset of American voters?

AG: The good thing about this current era is that whites are more receptive and open to voting for African-Americans. There are some whites out there who won’t vote for black candidates, but this is certainly not true of most white voters. It’s not so much about race anymore as it is about party. There are black Republicans getting elected to the House of Representatives from districts that are majority white, for example.

Logically, any white resistance to voting for a black candidate will be reduced even further in the future as one generation replaces another, since racial resentment is one reason some old voters currently won’t vote for a black candidate. But some young people harbor racial resentment too, passed on to them from elders. Thankfully there are fewer of them.

F24: Barack Obama was careful not to emphasise race in his presidential run and first term. Is that the surest strategy for an African-American politician to be elected?

AG: Some of the most successful black politicians, like Obama, are ones that “de-racialise” their campaign to appeal to white voters. That means they make overtures to non-black parts of their community, they avoid colloquialisms that would specifically appeal to African-Americans, they don’t present themselves as activists, they present themselves like erudite Ivy League graduates. It’s not a totally new phenomenon. It started with black politicians like Tom Bradley, mayor of LA from 1973 to 1993, Doug Wilder, governor of Virginia in the 1990s, or David Dinkins, mayor of New York City in the early 1990s. They didn’t talk a lot about race. Not that it wasn’t discussed in their campaigns - it came up. But they were running away from certain stereotypes of “black”.

There is no way Obama would be president if he had run a campaign like Jesse Jackson [an influential Baptist minister and civil rights activist who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988]. Some blacks prefer “de-racialised” candidates, too. Black support for Obama jumped after he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008; once blacks saw that whites would vote for Obama, his support went up among blacks also.

F24: Is there still tension between the older generation of African-American politicans and the newer, more “de-racialised” African-American leaders like Obama?

AG: There is definitely still a divide. Older black political leaders like Congresswoman Maxine Waters and black intellectual elites like Cornel West have said President Obama has not done enough to address problems in the black community, like black unemployment, which tends to be 1.5 to 2 times as high as white unemployment. These older black leaders want specific federal programmes to narrow that gap.

All these older black figures who criticise Obama are going to vote for him, I have no doubt about that. But a big question for his second term is: will he take bigger risks with respect to race?

F24: Obama’s job approval ratings are stuck at around 50%. Do you think that number would be higher if he were not black?

AG: Not all of that has to do with race. Not even most of it has to do with race. Some of it is party. Obama is governing during a period of heightened polarisation, and Republicans don’t want to work with Democrats. Some of it is policy. A lot of people just fundamentally disagree with Obama. And some of it is disillusionment. Obama was overhyped in 2008, and he could not possibly live up to those expectations or to the image he worked so hard to create.

That said, some of the resistance to Obama does have to do with race. The tone of some of the comments made and images used by people who criticise Obama are racially charged. For example, not all of the Tea Party is racist of course. A majority of Tea Party supporters are there because they want lower taxes and less government. But some of them are looking for a way to express racial resentment. Polls show that Tea Party supporters express higher levels of racial resentment than other Americans.

F24: Who are the African-American political stars right now? Any foreseeable future presidential contenders?

AG: People mention Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick as having presidential potential, but I’ve never seen or heard any evidence that he’s interested. The other one people talk a lot about is Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey. But he’s alternately talked about a run for governor of New Jersey or US senator. He’s still young.

Realistically speaking, America may very well elect a woman or Latino president before there’s another black president. In the next two to three election cycles, there will be a very serious Latino presidential candidate, someone who will be in first or second place in their party’s primary – it could be a Democrat like Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, Texas, or his twin brother Joaquin, who's running for Congress this year. Or a Republican like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, who had a great coming out party at the Republican convention.

I should also note that there may be a serious Asian-American candidate in the near future. Of the two sitting Asian-American governors, Bobby Jindal [of Louisiana] has been on the scene longer and got more attention, but I wouldn't discount Nikki Haley of South Carolina either.

Main photo credit: aaron_anderer via Flickr


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