Frank Rich’s column in yesterday’s New York Times was rich–really Rich. Aside from the obligatory and gratuitous Hillary Clinton smears, natch, it’s a model of a self-interested historical myopia that I’m afraid too many Democrats will talk themselves into on the way to Election Day. Rich’s premise is that this year’s election dynamic is The Grand Old White Party Confronts Obama. Now, no one can dispute Rich’s tag of the GOP as the GOWP–not anyone looking at the lily-white, all-guy lineup that suited up for each presidential debate in 2007 and 2008. Not African American voters who are the smartest voters in this country in recognizing that a vote for the GOWP candidate is not a vote in their self-interest. (If only white women would brain up and vote in their self-interest too! Maybe this year?)
But, if the GOWP is really so old-fashioned in their white manitood and ”all the fretful debate about whether voters would turn out for a candidate who is a black or a woman seems a century ago,” as Rich argues, then the Democratic Party’s record will be rock-solid in its consistent grooming and support for African American candidates, right? Let’s take a stroll over to American history to look at the Democratic party’s record of African American candidates in the top elective jobs in Washington, the Senate and the presidency, and the top job in state government, the Governor’s office. Since the GOWP’s Black Friend, Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK), declined to run for re-election in 2002 after serving four terms, Rich is right to point out that “there are no black Republicans in the House or Senate to stand with the party’s nominee in 2008.” But the Democratic Party’s numbers are similarly pathetic. Currently, there is one black Senator–you know and love him!–it’s Barack Obama (D-IL), who represents the same state that also sent the first black woman Senator to Washington in 1992, Carol Mosley Braun. Perhaps because she didn’t have the foresight to change her name to Carol Mosley Daley, Braun was’t re-elected. Braun and Obama were respectively only the fourth and fifth African American senators in U.S. history. More interestingly, they are also the only African American Democrats ever elected to the Senate–the two men elected during Reconstruction were Republicans, and more recently Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who served from 1967-79, was a Republican too. Ooops!
OK, let’s go to the Governors: Total number of sitting black Republican governors: zero. Total number of sitting black Democratic governors: one, Deval Patrick (D-MA). Total number of African American elected governors in U.S. history: two, Patrick and one-term Governor L. Douglas Wilder (D-VA). (Let’s note here too that the African American politicians listed here have a preternaturally high rate of serving one-term. Brooke of Massachusetts is the longest serving black Senator in U.S. history, winning re-election once and completing two full terms.) Now, on to the presidential campaigns: Total number of black Republicans to run for president: one–Alan Keyes (1996 and 2000). Total number of black Democrats to run for president: five–Shirley Chisholm (1972), Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988), Carol Mosley Braun (2004), Al Sharpton (2004) and Obama (2008). Total number of black Democrats to win their party’s nomination (so far): Zero.
The Democratic Party has quite a history of racial violence and exclusion to reckon with, from Indian Removal, to the defense of chattel slavery, to post-Reconstruction violence and the Ku Klux Klan, to Jim Crow and the Dixiecrat Party. (Please note: it was the Dixiecrats, not the Dixiepublicans!) Democrats got right with God and history in 1964, but their record so far in promoting African Americans to leadership only looks good when compared to the GOWP. If Democrats get a chance to pull the lever this fall for Obama, they shouldn’t break their arms trying to pat themselves on the back for being the party of N=1 instead of N=0. One man’s political fortunes aren’t transformational–only rank-and-file organizing and support for candidates of all ethnic backgrounds will truly change the face of the Democratic party.
But, just in case, let’s all say this prayer in the voting booth in November: close your eyes, click your heels three times, and repeat after me: Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Lani Guenier!