Black candidates get little respect

August 11, 2006|By LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM

For the first time in our nation's history, there are serious black candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties who are running in multiple U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races. But can any of them cross the racial divide and win? Not likely.

Many commentators are pointing to these half-dozen candidates as evidence that our country has reached a watershed moment and finally learned to embrace and accept African-Americans into the political fabric as important elected officials.

I am not buying their optimism. I don't believe that a single one of those talented and qualified blacks will be elected to the Senate or the State House in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Tennessee this November.

When it comes to the broad-based acceptance of national black elected leaders, little has changed since 1874, when Blanche Bruce became the first black to be elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate. There was one black senator then, and there is one black senator today.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if our nation could get beyond its general bias against black elected officials? Wouldn't it even be wonderful if we could get the U.S. Postal Service to put a black elected official on a stamp? During the 159 years of issuing stamps, there have been dozens of white senators, governors, House members and presidents so honored. We have also seen a Hispanic senator and the first woman senator placed on stamps. At least one Confederate official has a stamp. But not one of the many black elected officials have ever made the cut. Not to worry though, because there are plenty of black civil rights figures, singers, athletes and entertainers on stamps.

Are we to infer from this that whites will happily buy stamps with soul singer Otis Redding, boxer Joe Louis, and famous "Mammy" actress Hattie McDaniel, but not of accomplished black elected officials who served in Congress and elsewhere?

Why should we expect our fellow citizens to be more magnanimous about race than our own government's postal service?

Will Tennesseans hear Senate candidate Harold Ford's call for a constitutional amendment on a balanced budget, or will they be thinking of him as the first "nonwhite Tennessean" to run for the Senate? Will Michigan residents note Senate candidate Keith Butler's conservative views as a National Rifle Association member and an abortion opponent, or will they only define him as a "black minister"?

We tend to bleach out the individual qualities of black candidates, leaving only their race or a few racially charged stereotypes to define them. Even if the good residents of Maryland or Tennessee or Ohio forget to focus on the skin color of these candidates, you can rest assured that the local and national commentators will remind them. Constantly.

It would obviously be wrong for the nonblack citizens of Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee and Pennsylvania to assume that an experienced and dedicated black candidate could only commit himself to - and be loyal to - his state's black citizens. But the media's interest in the novelty of their candidacy will quickly transform the issue of a candidate's race loyalty and his racial bias into a concern that the average white voter can't ignore.

I ran for Congress in 2000 in a predominantly white, fairly conservative district in New York. One of my opponent's supporters hung up several posters with darkened photos of me in the whitest, most conservative part of the district. The poster headline read, "Make history for Our People. Elect Larry Graham for Congress." I suspect the message appealed less to tolerance than to fear - but how could we complain?

I wish that our obsession with race was not so tenacious. But at least I would like to see the creation of a Senator Bruce stamp. He deserves it on the merits. And perhaps, in correcting this glaring oversight and commemorating a black official who came 100 years before, we can help pave the way for a more thoughtful consideration of qualified black candidates today.

Lawrence Otis Graham is the author of "The Senator and The Socialite: the True Story of America's First Black Dynasty." His e-mail is lgnyoffice@aol.com.

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