Blacklisted: Why Are There No African Americans In The US Senate?

As a young African-American man who aspires to one day serve my state in the United States Senate, it would seem, much to my chagrin, that all the odds are not in my favor. The 112th Congress (2011-2013) did not have a single African-American Senator, and the incoming 113th Congress, which will serve from 2013-2015 will be African-American-less as well. The United States Senate has failed to have a African-American Senator since Roland Burris (who replaced Barack Obama when he assumed the office of President in 2009). And, before the people of the great state of Illinois sent Barack Obama to the Senate in 2004, there hadn’t been an African-American in that body since 1999. Only six African-Americans have served in the United States Senate since the inception of that body in April of 1789.

Historical Nature

Once the stains of slavery were wiped from the nation’s conscience and Reconstruction was instituted, a glimpse of hope could be seen in regards to our union being further perfected and African Americans who had only recently been property– now being able to run and be chosen for statewide and national office. The reason I say chosen is clear in the profiles of two men, both from the state of Mississippi: Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce. Not until 1913 were U.S. Senators directly elected by the population, rather they were chosen by their respective state legislatures. Hiram Revels was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate (and U.S. Congress overall) when on February 23, 1870 the Mississippi Senate voted 81-15 to send him as their Senator to Washington.

However, the oppugnant Democratic party opposed on the grounds that Revels, even though a citizen under the 14th amendment, could not take his seat because he had not met the nine-year citizen requirement of the United States Constitution. Revels and the Republicans would counter saying that he was born a free man and had been a citizen all his life (he was of mixed black and white ancestry). Thus, he was seated as the first African American Senator on February 25, 1870 after the body voted 48-8. Revels would hold his seat for one year until 1871 and chose not to seek reelection.

Not until March of 1875 did another African-American serve in the United States Senate, and his name was Blache Kelso Bruce. Bruce, like Revels was of mixed ancestry, and Republican who represented the state of Mississippi. Bruce holds the distinction of being the first former slave and African-American to preside over the United States Senate, a feat he accomplished in February of 1879. The next year he also became the first African-American to receive votes at the Republican National Convention when eight delegates cast ballots for him as Vice President to serve on the ticket with James Blaine. He retired from the Senate when President James A. Garfield named him as Registrar of the United States Treasury, where he holds the distinct honor of being the first African-American to have his signature on paper currency.

With the retirement of Bruce, the Senate would not have another African-American to grace its halls for 86 years until 1967 when Massachusetts elected Edward Brooke, who held that seat until 1979. Once Brooke was defeated, the Senate would be African-American-less until 1993 when Illinois elected Carolyn-Mosley Braun who became the first and to date only African American woman to hold a seat in the United States Senate. When Roland Burris chose not to run for reelection in 2010, the Senate lost the only African-American to grace its chamber.

Difficult Task?

There seems to be a major problem when the nation is rapidly becoming more diverse but its chief lawmaking body, well at least one chamber, is not reflective of that diversity. According to data by Politico, “if the United States Senate were representative of the United States population, then 16 of the 100 members would be African-American.” As stated before, this incoming class of United States Senators, will have zero African-Americans. This is a serious problem. It is almost insane to think that a nation with such an influential population can’t seem to get at least one African-American elected from across 50 states. Why is it such an arduous task to elect an African-American to statewide office when we have been able to elect one to the Presidency not once, but now twice? I for one know that there are plenty of talented, ambitious and worthy candidates who would be awesome individuals to serve as not only Senators, but also Governors and Attorneys General.

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  • I'm barely functioning at the moment, but I did want to leave a quick response…

    …there's one small phrase that tells a majority of the story: the fact that there's one African-American governor. Gubernatorial elections are subject to the same voters as senatorial elections. We can throw out quite a few of states which we know will never elect an African-American to a statewide position, probably half of them. We can eliminate quite a few others off the fact that there isn't enough of an African-American population to help elect an African-American. I'd say (without deep thought) that maybe ten states are even slightly possible locations from which an African-American senator can develop. There's also the fact that many senatorial elections occur in midterm years, when African-Americans are less likely to vote. That's before we even get into the issues discussed in the piece such as financing.

    Okay, my time's about up. I'll finish by saying these don't make the task impossible (obviously), but they are limitations that any African-American senatorial candidate would have to address throughout – or preferably, long before – they start campaigning.
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  • niksmit

    Wait, my brain doesn't really get going before noon. Did I read the first paragraph correctly? Neither house will have any African American representation? Not one among the hundreds in the lower house???

    • James Clyburn is still in the House of Reps. and Keith Ellison as well. There are a few other black representatives, but not many.

    • A.D. Fields

      No I state in the article that there are 43 blacks who serve in the house.

  • AfterMath

    The senate (and governor) is an entirely different race than running for say a House seat. The demographics are entirely different, which is why I'd argue that many of those who are beloved by their districts in the house choose not to run statewide, just a more difficult sale.

    Also, many of the Black politicians run on primarily Black issues. This is cool in terms of city and county races, but when doing state races where there isn't one state where Blacks are a majority, its a much more difficult task. in Mass, Patrick ran on a more middle class agenda similar to what Barack ran on. Many in our community don't see the benefit of such a campaign as its not centered around Black issues though.

    But as the demographics of America (and thus states) change to a majority minority population, we're likely to see the primary interests of voters change and the set of candidates running for statewide offices more diverse.
    My recent post Learn About “the Other” Algebra

  • It seems like more black folk are less interested in running for political office at all, unless there is a high concentration of African-Americans in their respective district. Getting elected is hard, even if the area in which your running knows your face. But to run for a Senate seat, where you have to be elected by a whole state? That seems to be an insurmountable mountain at this point.

    I’m more on the side of the Obama effect has been negative. The racial tensions in the country have ratcheted up, and as long as one of us is in charge, there will be no more advancement for another.

  • InsomniaPoet

    This article is just sad. Very true but sad. I think part of the problem is that the average American (black, white or other) doesn't really understand how politics work. Most people don't know who their Senators are, more or less when to vote for them, or how to campaign for them etc. Most of my friends only vote in Presidential elections (or when they were gonna start selling alcohol on Sundays). Half of my friends who do vote for something other than President don't even know who the candidates are and will literally call me on the way to vote asking me who they should or shouldn't vote for. I don't really know how you can convince people to care but I think that's where it has to start.

  • Bree

    "The House, however, has the exclusive power to initiate bills for raising revenue"
    Hate to pull the race card but I believe this is the reality. Caucasians will Always control the money in this country in some way, shape, or form. Regardless of who is the president, in the Senate or the house.
    Even though we have a black president, the Republicans have control of the House. To a certain extent, even though the Republicans lost the presidency, they won where it counts.
    "The major power of the House is to pass federal legislation that affects the entire country."
    Point is, the House of representative has more power than the Senate. I believe "they" knew exactly what they were doing with that move.
    What many people don't realize is that even if we did get a "freedom fighter" Malcolm X or Black Panther type of guy in the White House on any State Level and beyond, white people will balk and fight it and nine times out of 10 win.

  • Bree

    President Obama is very clever in how he handles things with regards to legislation and passing bills in the White House. He knows that if he gets too Black Pantherish and tries to "do too much" specifically for black people, and/or even speaks on doing to much for black people that he will, #1. be labeled as a "typical negro" continuing to enable and passify "his" people; and #2- trying to unfairly give us lazy negro's everything for nothing.

  • Sith King Jordan

    i think the biggest issue in terms of electing blacks to senate or governor positions, is quite frankly, the funds needed to campaign effectively. i don't know excat figures, but i'm pretty sure that the amount needed to run a successful senate campaign is much more than the amount needed to run a sucessful house campaign.

  • Bree

    I have several years of experience working in Corporate America. You cannot just do whatever you feel is right just because your in a position of power. The same people who give you the power can snatch it right back quicker than a NY minute. It takes time, patience, and strategic and careful planning to do things that go against the grain and appear to benefit a specific group of people, (particularly us).
    At the first property management firm I worked for, the white "Principal/Owner" decided to give all the black people MLK day off. All the white people fumed and were livid. The CEO & CFO told him to never ever do anything so "politically incorrect" and unfair ever again. After that we all had to work MLK day.
    I do agree that more should be done to ensure the same opportunities that are afforded to caucasians are afforded to all minorities, (we are not the only minority).

  • Bree

    As President Obama has stated, we need to do more locally before we can invoke any major changes nationally. Starting with voting locally and getting more involved in local government as much as we do nationally. Many of us don't vote half as much as we should for local people who run for offices, like state representatives, congressmen/women, and city councilmen/women.
    The more we can infiltrate the private sector of government, the more of a difference we will make, and the more our voices will be heard, and our rights acknowledged in the public sector of government. Once that happens then we have a much better chance of infiltrating higher more powerful branches of government like the House of Representatives.

  • nubian163

    Looking forward for when you decide to run for the position.

  • Muze

    really thorough article.

    sad that there will be no AAs in the Senate. But i can't say that i'm completely surprised. takes a LOT of money and supporters with a lot of money, to get a seat in the Senate. Like Nubian, i look forward to hearing about your run for office!
    My recent post too much, too soon?

  • tgtaggie

    You might actually get your wish….b/c Sen. Jim Demint from SC just resigned this morning to take a job at a "think tank" for $1 mill a year. The word in SC is that Rep. Tim Scott (a black republican congressman) is one of the front runners.

    • I just read an article on that. I imagine Scott is hardly the type that the author had in mind, but his inclusion would open up a discussion of 'descriptive representation vs. substantive representation'.
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  • rd

    They’re saying Cory Booker might take over for Lautenberg in NJ (sorry for the spelling)

    & DeMint retired today–they’re saying a black Republican might replace him

  • J.Crawford

    Since working on President Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, I have thought about running for office myself. My Dream Job is to be a FBI Agent or a U.S. Marshal, which is why I'm in college in the first place, so I want to put all my hard work and training to use before I decide to transition to Politics.

    Look Forward to a Senator Fields in the Senate one day

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