Monday, May 31, 2004

Why is it that black politicians are practically never elected to statewide office? In an article in the May 31 issue of The New Republic, Noam Scheiber addresses that question, even as he contends that Barack Obama will be an exception to the rule. Based on his performance in the primaries, Obama, who is facing Jack Ryan for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, is looking good for a November victory.
Black politicians do poorly statewide, according to Scheiber, because they depend on votes from African Americans and liberal white voters. Among moderate swing voters--who decide races in most of the country--they face a stereotype that they are "overly tolerant of crime and devoted to government programs that primarily benefit African Americans." If, in order to allay these suspicions, they emphasize being centrist, they may alienate their core constituency.
The other big hurdle black politicians face is a white perception that there are "good blacks" and "bad blacks". Scheiber cites a study done in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn: While white employers in the area were perfectly comfortable--even eager--to employ West Indian immigrants from outside the neighborhood, most were deadset against hiring local African Americans and Puerto Ricans. One local employer boasted of the team of West Indians he'd hired to guard his factory, but, when asked about hiring local African Americans, remarked, "What, the bums hanging around outside? You want me to hire the guys who are trying to rob me?"
Immigrants from Jamaica or Africa are often looked on as more hard working and goal oriented than American born blacks. That perception has worked in Obama's favor: his father is from Kenya, his mother is white. Furthermore, he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. But running for statewide office hasn't tempted him to be more centrist. He takes pride in his progressive record in the state legislature and projects earnest idealism in person and in his TV ads. One ad shows him speaking to the camera, saying, "They said an African American had never led the Harvard Law Review--until I changed that." The commercial concludes, "Now they say we can't change Washington, D.C. ...I approved this message to say, 'Yes we can.'" Voters seem to believe him. One liberal, North Shore woman in a focus group, when asked whom he reminded her of, said 'Sidney Poitier.'
In the primary, Obama ran in a field of seven Democrats and still garnered 53 percent of the vote--almost unheard of. The TV blitz the Obama campaign unleashed in the Chicago metro area during the last three weeks of the race--and downstate in the last six days--paid huge dividends among white voters, particularly in the collar counties, where Obama had done little campaigning. Obama ended up carrying 50 of blue-collar Joliet's 52 precincts. Likewise, he managed to win pluralities in several white ethnic wards in Chicago, the kinds of places Washington lost by huge margins in 1983. And Obama managed to attract white voters without eroding his standing among his core supporters. Indeed, the impressive margins among working-class whites paled in comparison with his margins among African Americans (about 90 percent or higher in ten heavily African American wards in Chicago, where turnout was up as much as 30 percent over recent elections).
Assuming that those kinds of figures transfer to the general election, Jack Ryan has a bleak outlook for becoming the next senator from Illinois.


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