Senate resistant to racial progress

August 05, 2004|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

THE ALMOST certain election of black Illinois legislator Barack Obama to the Senate in November has ignited almost as much excitement as his acclaimed Democratic convention keynote speech.

He would be only the fifth black person ever to sit in the Senate. If Georgia Rep. Denise L. Majette wins the Aug. 10 Democratic primary run-off for the Senate nomination, she also has an outside chance of winning a Senate seat. If she doesn't, Mr. Obama may well be the lone black senator for years to come.

But the Senate's glaring diversity problem goes far beyond Mr. Obama.

There are no Hispanics, no one who is openly gay, and only one American Indian, one Chinese-American, one Japanese-American and 14 women in the Senate. While there's the faint stir of reform in Great Britain that could turn the House of Lords, which for centuries typified the ultimate in political snobbery and class privilege, into a more democratic body, the Senate remains a clubby good ol' boy network of mostly rich, white males.

The Senate has sole power to approve a declaration of war, debate treaties, approve nominations to the Supreme Court and decide the guilt or innocence of an impeached president.

The Founding Founders made no secret that they wanted the Senate to be an Olympian lawmaking body. James Madison bluntly wrote that the Senate should be the ultimate check to prevent the people from "overwhelming" government.

For nearly a century and a quarter, state legislators elected senators. Though the Seventeenth Amendment changed that in 1913, it did not end the Senate's political insulation and elitism. At least 40 U.S. senators are millionaires. Many have been in the Senate for decades, and they are almost impossible to unseat. The six-year Senate term of office is the longest of any elected body in America. That spares senators the need to continually discuss and debate issues and policy decisions directly with voters. It also shields their actions from public scrutiny.

Mississippi is a near-textbook example of how changing racial demographics have little effect on Senate incumbents. Blacks make up more than a third of the state's population, and more than a quarter of the voters. They are solidly Democratic. Mississippi had the second-highest percentage of black delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Yet the state's two senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, have been in the Senate for a total of more than four decades. They are doctrinaire, conservative Republicans. In Mr. Lott's case, there's evidence of lingering segregationist sentiments.

Senate candidates also must raise millions of dollars, get their party's official stamp and appeal to conservative, white, middle-class voters to get elected. Mr. Obama, though now running unopposed, raised a record $4 million from April 1 to June 30.

He must preach a centrist message of family values, tax fairness and military preparedness to draw support from conservative white Democrat voters and neutralize Republicans in central and downstate Illinois. As a top Democrat, he also must adhere tightly to Democratic presidential contender John Kerry's campaign emphasis of toughness on national security and the war on terrorism.

Unlike the U.S. House, the Senate is not based on proportional representation. Senators represent broad geographic areas instead of specific districts. Though California's population is 70 times greater than Wyoming's, it has the same number of senators. The chance of a constitutional overhaul to change that is nil.

Finally, a shameful racial example of the Senate's unlimited power to make and enforce its own rules and take actions that are far removed from popular constraints, with little political risk, was aimed at Mississippi Sen. Hiram Revels, the first black in the Senate. When Mr. Revels presented his credentials to the Senate in February 1870, some senators immediately demanded they be rejected on the grounds that he did not meet the nine-year citizenship requirement for a senator. He did; the move was defeated, and Mr. Revels was seated.

He served barely a year.

Other than the single term that Blanche K. Bruce served a few years after Mr. Revels, it would take nearly a century before another black, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, entered the halls of what stands as the world's most elite and august chamber.

With the Senate's frozen conservative tradition and the granite resistant to reform, Mr. Obama's election wouldn't do much to change that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.

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