A Dearth Of African American Office-Holders

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker attended the 2006 state Republican convention in Massachusetts specifically to hear former Senator Edward Brooke speak, and then used the occasion as an entree to a discussion of why, in a state so notoriously liberal, there had been such a dearth of other African Americans in state-wide offices in the 40 years since Senator Brooke’s election.

His answer — of course? — was the latent racism of white voters. But, if that simple and expected explanation were the whole story, what explains Senator Brooke’s success?
I sent this letter to Mr. Walker to offer an alternative explanation. I got no reply.

1 May 2006

I think that perhaps one reason for Edward Brooke’s success — and why his success has not been repeated by others — is that he was a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats.

It has long been my contention that the first African American President and/or the first female President in America will be a Republican, for the simple reason that minorities and women who work their way up to levels of prominence in the Republican party tend to be there for reasons concerned with general economic growth, individual liberty, and social stability. Whether you think those concerns — and resulting platforms — are good or bad, they tend to be concerns and platforms that appeal to a broad centrist populace. Further, because the good-old-boy network of the real (as opposed to the ideal) Republican party has historically been somewhat hostile to them, prominent Republican minorities and women tend to be people who’ve become adept at building bridges and reassuring people of their basic good sense and willingness to negotiate. They tend to be people willing to work quietly behind the scenes to get what they want. They tend to be people who respect their political opponents even if they disagree with them. I remember Edward Brooke from my childhood (he ended his second Senate term when I was in high-school), and from what I remember he fit that mold.

In contrast, minorities and women who become prominent in the Democratic party tend to come from the most radical constituencies, tend to earn kudos for their ability to rally those constituencies around hot-button issues and incite change through upheaval. They tend to be bomb-throwers whose rhetoric comes from the fringe, who demonize their opponents, who disdain compromise, who prefer the spotlight of advocacy to the anonymity of governance, and whose platforms seem only one step removed from revolution. If that is a bit of dramatic overstatement, it is generally close enough to the truth that the Republicans can paint that caricature without too much effort.

That kind of approach to politics works well when you need only talk to your own constituency. But it is not effective when you need to build broad support across demographic and cultural and political boundaries — when you are running for statewide or national offices. And it is a particularly ineffective way to govern.

23 September 2006: As an end-note to this I remember, as a high-school student in New Hampshire during the mid-seventies, having the pleasure — or perhaps it was the dyspepsia — of attending speeches from many Presidential hopefuls as they made their way across the state during the primary season. One I remember in particular was Ben Fernandez, who emphasized his Mexican heritage and proudly invited everyone to help him achieve his goal of becoming the first Hispanic American President. He seemed like a reasonable enough guy and his policies, though not entirely to my liking, were not so radical as to be anathema. And yet I realized that I could not vote for him — not because he happened to be Hispanic but because he seemed to treat that happenstance as a dominant issue in his campaign and as the dominant personal characteristic that defined his life.

In a vote for a President I want to choose someone whose primary identity is “American”, without qualification. That they happen to be Hispanic or African-American or female is of no particular consequence. But I would no sooner vote for someone whose primary self-identification was as a Hispanic-American or as an African-American or as a Female-American (or, as they say in Santa Cruz, a “Gyno-American”) than I would vote for someone who went out of their way to identify themselves as a White-American — and for the same reason. I want a President for America, not for one section of America that commands their particular deference and loyalty.

17 March 2017: In reviewing this, after all that’s happened since, I acknowledge I was wrong about which party would select the first African American President (and, given the current state of things, probably about which party would select the first woman President). But I think I was right about the reasoning. Miraculously, in Barack Obama, the Democratic Party developed an African American candidate who did not come to prominence as a bomb-thrower pandering to a narrow and vocal minority constituency. In fact, he specifically distanced himself from that kind of thing and the public responded with enthusiasm.

(C) Copyright 2006, Augustus P. Lowell

Leave a Reply