January/ February 2013 Red, White, and Black

Three generations of African American politicians.

By Andrea Gillespie

To critics of deracialization, failures like Gantt’s were evidence of the futility of avoiding race as a crucial aspect of a black politician’s campaign. These detractors also worried that, if elected, deracialized officials were at greater risk of alienating their nonblack constituents if they ever took a side in a racial controversy. They contended that this would probably make deracialized politicians more risk averse and less likely to use their offices to provide needed relief for struggling communities of color.

Second-wave black political executives, most of whom were elected in the 1980s and ’90s, have largely exited the political arena. Wilder, who was constitutionally prevented from running for reelection as Virginia’s governor, made a short-lived bid for the presidency in 1992. He would later serve one term as mayor of Richmond, leaving office in 2009. Kurt Schmoke, who served as mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999, retired from politics to enter private law practice and eventually became dean of Howard University Law School. Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who took power after the disappointing tenures of Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion Barry, also retired from public office in 2007.

Over the last decade, journalists and pundits have eyed a third wave of black politicians. These new challengers, epitomized by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and President Barack Obama, are deracialized in a way that the previous generation was not. Born after about 1960, they are too young to have been involved in the civil rights movement, and, unlike their predecessors, they do not have personal experience with codified discrimination. Because of their experience in more diverse environs, they project a social ease that mainstream donors and political insiders quickly noticed. The third wave’s approach to deracialization is often more philosophical than strategic, and is born out of their positive experience in a more integrated America.

Fresh out of the country’s most prestigious graduate schools and armed with data-driven techniques with which to run their campaigns and measure their policy performance, third-wave politicians have been unafraid to challenge black, particularly racialized, incumbents. For example, in 2002, Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated former assistant U.S. attorney, successfully challenged five-term Congressman Earl Hilliard for the Democratic nomination in Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District. In suburban Atlanta, Denise Majette, a Yale- and Duke-educated lawyer, beat five-term incumbent Cynthia McKinney for the Democratic nomination in Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District.

In many cases, these third-wave challengers have garnered more favorable mainstream media coverage by projecting less threatening images than their racialized opponents. In response, their opponents have often tried to defend their turf using strident racial appeals, which appear buffoonish to some and anachronistic to others. In Newark, for example, Booker, a Stanford- and Yale-educated former Rhodes Scholar, became a national media darling by projecting a telegenic and deracialized image in his 2002 bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, whose strident racial rhetoric provided a stark contrast. Booker lost that first mayoral bid, but four years later James declined a rematch against him, paving the way for Booker’s easy victory.

In other cases, third-wave black politicians have successfully won higher offices by capitalizing on their family names. Harold Ford Jr. and Kendrick Meek succeeded their parents in Congress, and Jesse Jackson Jr. used his name to win a special election to Congress after another up-and-coming black politician, former Rhodes Scholar Mel Reynolds, resigned in the midst of a sex scandal.

While third-wave black politicians have had their successes in the last decade, they have not been immune to the vicissitudes of politics. Some have come under fire from the black establishment itself, which has criticized these younger politicians for not “paying their dues,” for lacking the requisite life experience, and for merely running for office to pad their resumes for future bids for higher offices. These criticisms are amplified when third-wave politicians face the same governing challenges that earlier politicians faced, such as rising crime rates, difficult union negotiations, or personal scandals.

In addition, third-wave black politicians have not escaped racial attacks. For example, former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr.’s senatorial ambitions succumbed to traditional racial stereotyping when the Republican National Committee ran an attack ad that primed fears of interracial sexual relations by featuring a flirtatious blonde who suggested that she had met Ford at the Playboy Mansion.

Finally, third-wave black politicians have sometimes struggled to balance support between black and nonblack voters. Like their second-wave counterparts, they have attempted to walk a treacherous line between invoking deracialized language and not being tone-deaf to the interests of their black constituents. For example, in 2010, Artur Davis failed to win the Alabama Democratic gubernatorial primary, in which blacks were a key constituency. Davis’s long-standing tension with Alabama’s black political establishment hurt his candidacy, as did his vote against Obamacare—a move that Davis had hoped would help him win over conservative white voters in a general election.

Similarly, in Washington, D.C.’s 2010 Democratic mayoral primary, black voters supported the more racialized City Council President Vincent Gray over deracialized incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty. A successful technocratic reformer popular among business elites and whites, Fenty lost support among black voters because of his tough stance toward teacher’s unions and perceived indifference to concerns about gentrification.

Paradoxically, Barack Obama’s election and reelection, in which he won more than 93 percent of the black vote, may mark the end of the era in which we can blithely assume that black voters will rally around a black candidate. While the majority of black voters agree with the president politically—and this alone can explain their voting behavior in 2008 and 2012—it is also true that some people rallied around the racial significance of his candidacy to both support and oppose.

This type of racially motivated voting is certainly evident in historic elections where a black person is running for the first time. In the future, though, that trend may subside, as black candidates will no longer benefit from the novelty of electing or reelecting a “first black.” Third- and fourth-wave black politicians, aiming to maintain the same record levels of support and turnout among black voters that Obama achieved, will have to do so on the strength of their policy platforms and outreach, and not only on the appeal of a familiar skin color.

The 2012 presidential election also highlights new challenges of diversity in American politics. Despite a large black turnout in 2008 and 2012, Obama won largely because of his increased support from Latino and Asian American voters, who made up a larger share of the electorate than ever before. These voters have policy interests that must be addressed, and they have community leaders who also harbor aspirations for high political office. Black politicians looking to follow in Obama’s footsteps will have to negotiate the interests of those communities and develop a brand that appeals beyond the basic black-white paradigm.

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."