Obama Is Not the Reason There Aren't More High-Profile Black Politicians

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The first black president hasn't recruited a wave of black politicians to follow him, and Politico's Jonathan Martin asks, essentially, whether President Obama has been a good enough black leader. Several black politicians respond that if Obama were that type of politician, he wouldn't have gotten elected in the first place. Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver says, "If he concentrated on trying to set up some kind of brigade of black aspiring politicians where he would mentor them and so forth, somebody would introduce impeachment legislation." Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says, "If he had been viewed as this champion of black people helping a cadre of young black people would that have been helpful to the bigger mission of having a black man not just elected but reelected to the presidency?" That is a polite way of noting that since Obama's election, the national conversation about race hasn't always been enlightening — it has sometimes devolved into a bad country song, or Glenn Beck saying the president hates white people, or the demands for an investigation into the "Obamaphone," which is actually the Reaganphone.

But while racism among some people, particularly in the South, plays a role, there are other barriers keeping black politicians from winning statewide. These things were not Obama's creation.

Black voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in 2012 for the first time ever, the Associated Press reports today, based on a new analysis by the Brookings Institution. Yet, Martin points out, "African-Americans are scarce and bordering on extinct in the U.S. Senate and governorships." Is this because Obama hasn't cultivated them? It's not that simple. The American Prospect's Jamelle Bouie explained last year that while almost half of senators had first served in the House, no black representative had made the leap to the Senate. (The only one that has made the leap since, Tim Scott, was appointed to replace Jim DeMint after the senator quit for a $1 million job at the Heritage Foundation.) There are a couple reasons it's hard to make the jump: black representatives tend to come from big states, so they're less well known, and they tend to have very liberal voting records. And black politicians tend to represent less affluent districts, meaning it harder for them to raise the huge amount of cash needed to win a Senate seat.

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Especially in the South, black Democrats and white Republicans have worked together to pack black people in a few congressional districts, meaning black representatives don't have much incentive to position themselves as moderate. (Georgia Rep. John Lewis and South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn told Politico that they "have concluded that district-packing is detrimental and stated that they'd be OK with representing more diverse districts.") It's easier for black politicians to win statewide races when their congressional districts aren't overwhelmingly black. That was true of Obama when he was a state senator — his district was redrawn in 2000 to include more wealthy white liberals. Bouie thinks Obama's loss in a 2000 House race in Chicago is what "freed him to build a multiracial constituency outside of Chicago's South Side."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.