January/ February 2013 Red, White, and Black

Three generations of African American politicians.

By Andrea Gillespie

Ten years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass found himself in a fight with fellow Republicans over the extent to which the party of Lincoln should demand the enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Douglass supported civil rights legislation that would enforce the amendments that freed the slaves and gave them equal social and voting rights, while many Republicans shrank from it, arguing that such legislation would amount to too much too soon and bring about a backlash from moderates and conservatives. Douglass, however, would not be cowed. In his column in The New National Era, he argued that Congress should enforce the Constitution, even if some people were uncomfortable with the pace of progress. We cannot wait, he wrote, “until the nation is educated up to giving us something more.”

Douglass’s defense of black political advocacy a century and a half ago highlights an abiding tension in American racial politics. Should civil rights activists work for swift or incremental change? Should black activists temper their demands in an attempt to win over skeptical nonblacks? Should fears of backlash temper efforts at racial redress? These questions have echoed throughout the past 150 years, recurring in the debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and in the tensions between Martin Luther King Jr. and accommodationists on his right and black nationalists on his left. In the past four decades, the debate has emerged yet again as racialized and deracialized black politicians have vied for political office and, in doing so, redefined the contours of modern African American politics.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights estimated that in 1964 there were only about 300 black elected officials in the United States. By 1970, that number had swelled to nearly 1,500, as many black activists, heeding civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s call to move “from protest to politics,” began to run for elective office for the first time. While many of these so-called “first black” politicians, like Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and California Congressman Ron Dellums, made conciliatory overtures to their nonblack constituents, issues of race defined their candidacies and their tenures in office. Socialized in black activist movements and informed by their personal experiences with de facto and de jure racism, these politicians actively courted black voters and embraced civil rights issues as part of their campaign platforms. Most often, their campaign rhetoric made note of the historic significance of their candidacies and emphasized policy issues, like police brutality or affirmative action, that were designed as overtures to blacks.

As a result, trailblazing politicians like Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson often faced steep opposition from white voters. Many whites at the time feared that black elected officials would institute punitive policies in retaliation for Jim Crow. Others expressed doubts about the competence of black politicians; some were merely prejudiced. At the mayoral level, many in this first wave of black politicians won office only after white voters split their votes between two white candidates, or after large numbers of whites had fled the city. Through the early 1980s, the first-black mayors of large cities usually won less than a quarter of the white vote in their initial elections.

Once in office, this first wave of black politicians, particularly mayors, faced major obstacles. The stagnation of the U.S. economy in the 1970s and early ’80s exacerbated the decomposition of urban communities, which were already crumbling under the weight of deindustrialization, white and middle-class-black flight, and shrinking revenues. As a result, many of these first- black mayors had to shelve ambitious antipoverty plans in favor of targeted set-aside programs that only benefited small segments of the black middle class, or downtown redevelopment efforts that erected large buildings but created few permanent jobs.

Despite these shortcomings, first-wave black politicians were often reelected. Some, like Michigan Congressman John Conyers, still serve. Others, like Mayor Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, or Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, held office for more than a decade. Part of their electoral success can be attributed to black voters’ pride in reelecting these men to office, and part of it can be attributed to the fact that nearly all these cities were witness to a dramatically shrinking white electorate throughout these decades. In Gary, for example, Hatcher was wildly unpopular among white voters, who accused him of funneling federal grant money exclusively to black neighborhoods. One predominantly white neighborhood even attempted to de-annex from the city under his watch. Regardless, Hatcher was elected repeatedly, winning a total of five terms as mayor, almost exclusively on the support of a mostly black constituency.

The highly racialized politics of this era, epitomized by Hatcher and Mayor Marion Barry in Washington, D.C., raised new questions and tensions. While first-wave black elected officials successfully appealed to racial solidarity, they often failed to fix problems like soaring urban crime rates and the often dysfunctional state of public services, which were the target of legitimate criticism. And there were also larger questions about whether the racialized rhetoric that worked in majority-black enclaves would turn off voters in nonblack jurisdictions. As a result, some scholars began suggesting as early as the 1970s that black candidates run race-neutral campaigns.

In a 1973 address to the National Urban League Convention, political scientist Charles Hamilton proffered deracialization as an antidote to the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy.” Since Republicans were using racially coded language, like “law and order” or “anti-busing,” to prime antiblack resentments among whites, Hamilton urged black candidates to cast their agenda in racially transcendent terms. He suggested that, instead of promoting racially targeted remedies for black-white inequality, black candidates should emphasize their support for universal measures that would appeal to all Americans.

While some first-wave black politicians, like Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, adopted deracialization as early as the 1970s, the strategy really gained prominence in the ’80s. Observers point to the 1989 election as a watershed moment for validating the efficacy of deracialization, with a second wave of deracialized black candidates winning a slew of mayoral seats across the country, in places as varied as Seattle, New York City, New Haven, and Durham, North Carolina. In addition, Douglas Wilder, whose campaign flouted racial stereotypes by emphasizing issues like law and order and fiscal conservatism, became Virginia’s (and America’s) first elected black governor. Not only did these candidates win office in places where blacks often did not make up a majority of the electorate, they also did so with significant support from white voters.

While these elections demonstrated that a deracialized strategy could work, it was hardly a panacea. For starters, race-neutral campaigns were not necessarily synonymous with good management. New York Mayor David Dinkins, for instance, lost after only one term to Rudolph Giuliani, who accused him of mismanaging the city. In addition, a black politician’s decision to deemphasize race did not preclude race becoming a factor in his election bid. For instance, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt twice lost a U.S. Senate bid to Jesse Helms, who made explicit appeals to white racial solidarity.

Andrea Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and the author of "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America."