Black politics includes the myriad ways in which blacks work to gain influence and power in the system of government said to represent their interests. Black politics is both the philosophies held by blacks about how a representative government should work to satisfy their best interests and the strategies espoused for accomplishing this. It has been said that the more things change, the more things remain the same. This is certainly the case regarding recent political issues within contemporary African American communities. A host of new political issues confront African Americans across the United States, while they continue to grapple with the political issues that faced previous generations. It goes without saying that the general rubric of African American politics is too broad to enable in-depth treatment of every issue here. Thus the focus here is on particular aspects of black politics that have become increasingly relevant in recent years, highlighting issues regarding new problems, new perspectives on solving old problems, and where black constituencies may be headed in the near future. Accordingly, three primary areas are the focus here—representation and political participation, ideological and public policy shifts among African Americans, and black electoral politics.
Representation, Voting Rights, and Political Participation
The essence of democracy is representation. Commonly identified democratic principles, such as fair and open elections, full adult suffrage, and officials who are responsive to the citizenry, all rest on the assumption that a small group of elected leaders represents the interests of a larger constituency. The history of African American participation winds its way through 250 years of legalized slavery, another 100 years of legal oppression and segregation, and a continuing struggle for equal opportunity and dismantlement of racist stereotypes and attitudes. Within this context, black Americans have benefitted from increased representation in federal, state, and local public offices but have been hindered by the still disproportionately low levels of representation of black interests.
The number of black members of Congress has increased dramatically since 1980, and more striking gains in numbers of blacks holding political office have been made at the state and local levels. The gains at the federal level are partly a result of race-conscious districting. Because of the constitutional requirements mandating a decennial census and several Supreme Court decisions mandating congressional districts to be equally proportioned, the process of reapportionment and redistricting of boundaries for congressional seats is necessary. Some activists for minority interests have claimed that the creation of so-called majorityminority districts is the answer to minority representation in Congress. Others disagree.
Majority-minority districts virtually guarantee that nonwhite candidates will be elected to Congress. In fact, there have been only a few black members of Congress who have represented majority-white districts or states. But the creation of majority-minority districts means the decreased presence of racial minorities in all other districts. Some have argued that this creates a situation where white members of Congress no longer need to be responsive to minority interests. Others argue that reliance on race-conscious districting limits the potential influence of minority leaders, since the practice makes it quite difficult for a minority candidate to be elected in a majority-white district, essentially placing a limit on the number of minority members of Congress at any given point in time.
Blacks have made their greatest inroads into elected offices at the state and local levels. The number of black elected officials at these levels has increased dramatically over the past decade. The greatest increase has occurred in areas of the country where there are large African American populations. While redistricting strategies account for much of the increase at the federal level, other factors factor significantly into increases at the state and local levels. Whites are increasingly willing to vote for black candidates at these levels, especially when the ideological beliefs and party affiliations of blacks and whites are strongly correlated. Increasing numbers of nonblack minority populations have also contributed to this phenomenon.
The increased level of black elected officials in state and local offices has led, and will likely continue to lead, to increased influence. Blacks have succeeded in shaping state public policy to their benefit. In addition, this increase at the state level will likely translate into greater numbers of blacks vying for seats in federal office as lower officeholders continue moving up the electoral ladder.
While increasing levels of inclusion of blacks in federal, state, and local offices generally signals a positive trend in terms of meeting our country's ideal of equal representation, another factor—discrimination regarding voting rights—has recently revealed a serious hindrance to this ideal. The controversial outcome of the 2000 election raised significant questions about the ability of the black public to participate in elections through free and fair election and voting processes. Academic research, and that sponsored by official federal bodies, shows that for blacks and other minorities, there are significant barriers to voting, to having their votes counted, and to having them counted accurately. Inquiries into these problems have demonstrated that some of these barriers have been deliberately constructed to exert and maintain political power within the white community. Prior to the 2000 election, many of these problems were not identified or highlighted, largely because of the acceptance of the myth that blacks and other minorities choose not to participate in the political process as much as whites do.
Contrary to popular understanding, however, black Americans have not generally been found to participate in political activities less than their white counterparts. This is especially the case when participation is defined as more than number of votes. Participation includes a variety of activities, such as community organization and outreach, protests, boycotts, and interpersonal communication, that are common forms of political activity in many black communities. Participation is affected most prominently by the psychological construct called political efficacy (i.e., the belief that one can make a difference). The most efficacious Americans are those whose financial position puts them in the middle or upper class and those who are college educated. On the whole, whites do participate at a higher level than blacks, but once demographic indicators such as income and education are controlled, whites and blacks participate at virtually the same rates.
Ideology and Public Policy
Black politics is characterized and driven by the “just permanent interests” that former U.S. Representative William Clay, and a variety of academic researchers, have shown dominated the political landscape of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. However, the terrain of such interests, as well as the most available and appropriate means of attaining them, has changed and continues to change within African American populations. Furthermore, while blacks are increasingly represented in state and federal bodies, there is simultaneously a significant trend of divergence among African Americans in terms of political party affiliation, ideological stances, and public policy attitudes, levels of racial-group identification, and belief in a strategy of black political solidarity.
Research shows that blacks still overwhelmingly affiliate with the Democratic Party and largely support Democratic candidates; however, the nature of the affiliations and the degree of support have significantly waned. While there have been marginal but significant increases in the number of blacks registering as Republicans, there has been a sizable increase in the number of blacks registering as Independents and with parties other than the Democratic Party. The presence of blacks like Colin Powell, J. C. Watts, Condoleeza Rice, and others in high-ranking positions in the Bush administration has had a measurable impact on blacks' considerations of the Republican Party as a viable space for participation by black politicians and black constituencies in general.
This movement of blacks away from the Democratic Party, which traditionally supports black causes, also results from the fact that blacks are increasingly expressing nonracial policy concerns that converge with those of whites. These factors have translated into decreased opportunities for specific black communities, and the black population as a whole, to pursue a political strategy based on some modicum of solidarity—especially as the racial group identification of African Americans is increasingly divided along the lines of economic well-being, residential situation, and levels of education. These diverging aspects of contemporary black political realities have also spilled over into the increasingly changing nature of black electoral politics, specifically the manner in which race has been used by black and white political candidates in the electoral process.
Racial Messages in Political Campaigns
Race is a recurring theme in campaign advertisements, even when there are no black candidates running for office. Although blacks' comparatively low levels of political efficacy and participation have decreased the risk of white candidates using racial messages that might alienate black constituents, racist messages continue to exist. Even in an era that attaches social stigma to overt racial prejudice, some messages still rely on negative stereotypes of racial minorities. In some cases, the messages are explicit, but in most cases, they are implicit. Research in this area demonstrates that implicit messages are likely to be more effective than explicit messages, because the latter violate our cultural norm of racial equality and are thus generally rejected by voters. Implicit messages, however, work on racial predispositions that exist in the subconscious minds of Americans, even those who outwardly reject such stereotypes in their day-to-day lives.
The now-infamous Willie Horton ad is a prime example of such a message. Vice President George H. W. Bush ran an attack ad against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race on the issue of crime. The ad accused Dukakis of being soft on crime because of a prison furlough program that was in place while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. The ad featured the story—and accompanying mug shot—of Willie Horton, a black man who committed a rape and assault while on furlough. The existence of Horton's picture, which revealed his race, was unnecessary to convey the intended message, but it likely primed negative racial stereotypes in the minds of voters who may have rejected the message if it were more explicitly racist.
It is unlikely that we will see many explicitly racist messages in political advertising in the future. But racial messages take a variety of forms and come from a variety of sources. It is important to understand these new campaign dynamics to fully comprehend the complexity of racial politics in the 21st century.
The New Face of Electoral Campaign Politics
As the number of African American candidates rises, so does the potential for black candidates to compete against one another in election contests—contests that have been heretofore largely uncompetitive, as many elected officials have held office for long periods of time and then hand picked a successor. Although African American candidates are not likely to espouse racist attitudes, this does not preclude the use of race in their campaigns. The increase in the ideological diversity of black Americans inevitably translates into elections where black candidates are forced to differentiate themselves from their black opponents. One result of this is black politicians' using claims to racial authenticity as a communication strategy in their campaigns.
Candidates involved in this debate argue, in essence, who is “really black,” and which of them is “keeping it real,” as opposed to “selling out” (i.e., mimicking or assimilating into the white hegemonic norm). Perhaps the most fitting and recent example of this was found in the 2002 Democratic primary in Alabama's seventh congressional district. Incumbent Earl Hilliard ran against Arthur Davis in a contest that the press noted pivoted on the race issue, with Hilliard claiming that “his lighter-skinned opponent [was] not really black at all.” Both candidates' discussions about black authenticity foreshadowed what will likely become an increasingly common theme in elections within majority-minority districts.
It is clear that changes in the larger U.S. political climate have made the issue of equal representation the prized political goal of African Americans. Blacks are increasingly moving away from monolithic forms of political thought and strategizing, which will contribute to their attaining this goal. Yet new challenges will likely be posed as blacks continue to compete for power and a voice in American politics.
- black politics
- local offices
- African Americans
- political efficacy
- Clay, W. L. (1996). Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991. New York: Amistad Press. This book outlines the history of black American members of the U.S. House and Senate and the interests and strategies driving their careers as elected representatives.
- Guinier, Lani. (1994). The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy. New York: Free Press. In this book, Guinier provides arguments about redistricting policies and appropriate attempts to ensure equal representation for minorities.
- Kinder, D. R., Winter, N. Exploring the Racial Divide: Blacks, Whites, and Opinion on National Policy. American Journal of Political Science 45234–245 (2001). This essay discusses the ideological and public policy differences of blacks and whites in the United States. dx.doi.org.
- Mendelberg, Tali. (2001). The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Mendelberg looks at the changing ways that negative attitudes about blacks have been used by white political candidates and responded to by white voters throughout history.
- Reeves, Keith. (1997). Voting Hopes or Fears? White Voters, Black Candidates and Racial Politics in America. New York: Oxford University Press. This book analyzes the responses of whites to black political candidates, as well as the general ways in which black politicians are evaluated by white voters.