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Image: New York Times

The current issue swirling around the Obama campaign focuses on the question of whether a black man or woman can be president. It’s the wrong question. Instead we should ask why hasn’t there been a black president? And please spare me the line about “there hasn’t been anyone qualified.” As qualified as Warren Harding or Millard Fillmore or, yes, George W. Bush? You can even throw in Abe Lincoln whose resume at the time he walked through the door of the White House was rather skimpy.

If qualifications are not an issue what is? The next easy answer has always been racism, but when used by white people this excuse often has about it a tone of resignation and inevitability. Black folks and other people of color have heard white folks recite the same speech for over 200 years, one that usually goes something like this, “Yes, there are racists, but you can’t change people overnight.”

So-called “liberals” often accompany this sentiment with an “it’s too bad” tone of deterministic fatalism that says “We enlightened liberals (some of us even have friends who are people of color) know racism exists, we empathize with its victims, but human nature being what it is it is not something we can fix tomorrow.”

“Human nature being what it is.” That phrase pretty much sums up what many white people I know say when you ask why no person of color has ever been president. People of color apparently can be presidents in other parts of the world, but not the United States. The people in those countries know our statistics despite our attempts to not look into our own mirror. What message do you suppose that sends? And what kind of reception can an American company, diplomat or tourist expect?

As Thurgood Marshall and others made clear over half a century ago–and W.E. B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass before that–racism is a system. They saw that at its heart lay a series of de facto and de jure practices that systematically oppressed people of color. If anyone wanted evidence of that they just had to read the transcripts of the trials of the murderers of Emmitt Till. That was the way the “system” worked.

A century ago, DuBois characterized the political situation of African Americans:

The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration; and, finally, the accused law-breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let one guilty one escape.

Those words still echo today. DuBois recognized that segregation was a system. If he were alive today he would ask something like the same question he did a century ago: how has the system prevented an African American from becoming president?

Almost every president in the last 100 years or so has come from either the vice-presidency, the United States Senate, or a governorship (Hoover and Eisenhower are two ringers). How many people of color have occupied those offices over the last century? Obviously no people of color have served as vice-president or even been nominated for the office.

The standard defense of this always focuses on the South, as if Dixie hung like an albatross around the neck of America. Yet Dixie has voted for either segregationist or Republican presidential candidates since 1948. So the Democratic Party cannot claim nominating a person of color to the vice-residency would cost them a South they have not captured for sixty years.

Move to the Senate. Over the last century you can count the number of African Americans who have served in the Senate on one hand. Let us name them: Barack Obama, of course, Carol Mosely Braun (also from Illinois), Edward Brooke (Massachusetts). There have been only five African American Senators in the history of this country! As for governors, when Deval Patrick won the governorship of Massachusetts last fall it made him only America’s second black governor since Reconstruction. The other was Douglas Wilder of Virginia who won in 1990.

So in the entire history of the United States we have had only seven African Americans ever elected to the positions that have served as the major paths to becoming president. You do the math, but the percentage has to be around one or two percent! Now try to tell the Shiites in Iraq that they should share power with the Sunnis and do that with a straight face!

Like canaries in a mineshaft the lack of African American presidents, vice-presidents, senators and governors signals that the air of systematic discrimination that DuBois spoke of still remains foul and unlivable, literally killing African Americans at an alarmingly high rate entirely out of proportion to their percentage of the population.

Those canaries signal that a half century after people such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis and thousands of others fought to end segregation, the playing field still remains tilted.

That systemic discrimination is alive and well can be seen by examining the four cornerstones of Liberal America: economic and social justice, educational equity, voting rights and media fairness. It is that tilted playing field that any person of color wishing to become president must climb–and the steepness of that tilt–which has always been precipitous–is becoming steeper under the Republican Counterrevolution.

Economic discrimination, which was Dr. King’s last, great cause still remains. Anyone seeking evidence can find it in employment and health care statistics, both of which have worsened under George W. Bush.

Education has been backsliding into “separate but unequal,” especially in the public/private schools of the South and the inadequate inner city inner-city schools of the entire country. Instead of helping these schools, the Republicans have created the draconian No Child Left Behind which instead of helping poor performing schools penalizes them (a Simon Legree motif more than familiar to any person of color).

Voting rights has taken a step backward under the Republican’s openly aggressive policy of discouraging people of color from voting. Republicans sought to derail the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and have discouraged measures such as same-day registration. The Civil Rights Commission severely reprimanded their performance in suppressing the votes of people of color in Florida in the 2000 election.

While people of color have made progress on the visible side of the media, ownership and management of media outlets by people of color has actually declined. In commenting on media ownership FCC Commissioner Michael Copps stated:

The facts are downright chilling. While people of color make up over 30 percent of our country’s population, a study from Free Press last fall tells us that they own only 3.26 percent of all broadcast television stations. Unpack these numbers a little further and you’ll find that African-Americans own only 1.3 percent of all stations. And it’s sad to say, we’re not making progress.

As a result of this tilted playing field, few young African American men and women grow up wanting to be president. They just want to be able to grow up, period.

They hope a random bullet or one with their name on it does not hit them as it has so many of their brothers and sisters. They hope they will not die because of a health care system that serves them poorly if at all. They hope maybe a few teachers and administrators in school where the toilets don’t work and the textbooks are missing pages will treat them as living not dead. And they hope the media, including the so-called blogosphere will not look through them as if they had already become ghosts.

As for politics, how many people of color occupy party leadership positions at the state or national level? Usually at this point I find a study or studies–more often than not totally ignored by the media–that provides the data I need.

Now maybe I’m just a lousy researcher, but searching the Internet I could not find that ANYONE had done a study of people of color in either party organization. That’s even more appalling than number of elected officials! So if you are reading this and know someone who could use a good dissertation topic–stick them on this one!

What I did find was a list of Democratic National Committee members put out by the DNC and another list of DNC members who are African American. However, both lists are somewhat out of date. If there are going to be an African American presidents, senators, governors it has to start with the DNC.

The DNC is governing body of the Party, but it is also where candidates are nurtured and chosen. Its membership consists of state party officials, national elected officials, a variety of Democratic Party-related organizations and at-large members chosen by the Party.

The roster I located lists 90 African Americans on the DNC which has a total of 435 members. This translates to 20%, which exceeds the U.S. figure of 13%. So the DNC has walked its talk about African American representation. You would think twenty percent might guarantee you some leverage, but it hasn’t guaranteed the candidates.

For that you need to look at the state committees. A quick run through the DNC state delegates shows that most states have two African American members–some even have three. But I was unable to find a source that gave the percentage of African Americans on various state committees.

A second place to look is voting patterns. The African American candidates who have attained higher office all follow a similar pattern–they come from states that have significant numbers of African Americans, mostly in large cities such as Chicago or Boston. Illinois accounts for 40% of our African American Senators and two-thirds since Reconstruction.

The states with the largest percentages of African Americans almost all lie in the old South ranging from 36.5% in Mississippi to 25.8% in Alabama. New York, Illinois, Michigan and Delaware fall in the next group with populations in the mid-teens. I have argued for some time that Democrats could take back the South merely by organizing African American voters, but so far they have shown little interest.

So where is the leverage to change this? Certainly grassroots organizing needs to get stronger. People of color in organizations such as the DNC also need to hold their organizations’ feet to the fire. Finally legal and legislative challenges to discrimination need to continue.

But in addition to these there exists a powerful weapon that remains largely unused: the franchise. African Americans and other people of color essentially hold the veto power to decide whether the Democrats will be the majority or minority party. Since the Republican Counterrevolution began with Barry Goldwater supporting the Dixiecrats and continued with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, people of color have not mattered very much to the GOP. The result is that for over a generation the Democratic Party has assumed the votes of people of color were theirs because the alternative was so bad what else could they do?

Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry aggressively sought out or attracted the support of people of color. They behaved as if they didn’t need to. As a result both lost because people of color stayed home and Gore and Kerry failed to match Bill Clinton’s voting percentages. In 2006, people of color turned out in large numbers, providing the margin of victory for the Democrats. They–not the Iraq War–allowed the Democrats to again assume control of Congress.

Now people of color have the power to determine the results of 2008. What would happen if a national coalition of African American, Hispanic, and Native American leaders organized an umbrella organization that would lay out a list of positions–much as feminist groups have done–and endorse candidates who supported them?

As we all know, African Americans and other people of color are deciding whether to support one of their own–Barack Obama–or the wife of the president who probably did as much for people of color as anyone since Lyndon Johnson. That an African American man and white woman are fighting for the same position should be deja vu all over again for many people of color. Having a unified position would help to sort out this dilemma.

Originally posted on the Francis L. Holland Blog. With many for thanks for inspiring me to think and write about this issue.

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