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.
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.
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.
The United States House of Representatives has 43 African-Americans who serve currently, and there have been 126 since 1789. While it may seem easier to be elected to the House as an African-American that is not a fact. It is less difficult in that many of the districts that a majority of these members represent are from people who look like themselves. This is turn usually makes it tougher to broaden the appeal that would be needed for seeking a United States Senate or any other statewide elected office.
One major difference also between African Americans and, lets say other marginalized groups, i.e. women, is organizational. African-Americans have no real major PACs (Political Action Committees) or organizational structure that are solely dedicated to elected African-American men and women to serve in the Senate. There are countless womens groups, such as the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund. According to a study done by Rutgers University, there are over 50 PACs that are primarily focused on seeing women being elected to office. Personally, I see this as women understanding the collective responsibility they bear to see progress in a nation which usually stalls on issues that are important to them. African-Americans, in my humble opinion, don’t think this way.
If we field a good black candidate, then there should national effort among African-Americans to ensure that individual has success in their respective race. The theme of collective responsibility, once the bedrock of the African-American community, seems to have ebbed as the ocean does from shores of the Earth. However, African Americans are not the only ones who have to be convinced. These potential candidates need to have a broad appeal that would allow them to serve the interest of their states as well as fight for issues that concern the African-American community, which in a great deal of states are one in the same. It was the case with Barack Obama who ran successfully for the U.S. Senate in 2004, though his original opponent dropped out of the race and the successor to that opponent was as extreme and Hitlerian as one could be in his right-winged views. Mr. Obama proved he could do it on a national level with his runs for the Presidency in 2008 and 2012. But, has the Obama effect hurt or helped African-Americans who would seek a Senate seat?
Obama: Helped or Hurt?
In most cases the President has both helped and hurt those who would seek higher office around the nation. African-American candidates are now held to the “Obama standard.” The standard of having a broad appeal to not only African-Americans and members of your own party, but to attract young and old; black, white, hispanic, asian; as well as independents and those from across the aisle. Believe me, there are candidates out there with that type of appeal. Blacks like Bakari Sellers who won election at age 22 to the South Carolina House of Representatives, men like Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, or Kamala Harris, the current Attorney General of California. Or Kendrick Meek, former U.S. Representative who was unsuccessful in his bid for the Senate in 2010, mainly due to Charlie Crist running as a Democrat and syphoning votes from him and allowing Marco Rubio to be elected. Damon Dunn, candidate for California Secretary of State (2010) although a Republican, could be a viable candidate as well to break down “the other glass ceiling.”
The people are out there, what we are lacking is the organization and the resources to successfully win at the highest levels. While the President doesn’t have to personally support these candidates he could be helpful in offering key staff members and strategist as well as cajoling the leaders of the Senate Campaign and the Democratic National Committees to seek viable African American candidates. The major question is will he bear this cross, or will African Americans continue to be blacklisted as was the case in the 2012 Senate election cycle?
If we were to analyze making a move from the House of Representatives to the United States Senate by any of the 43 current members of the Congressional Black Caucus, it seems that most don’t have that broad appeal. By appealing to only “black” issues it seems they have placed a limit on themselves to be seen as persons who can move to the next level. While I do not fully agree with this, it seems to be the argument. This does not diminish their roles as policy makers however, I think it enhances it and brings to the table something that is vital. That being an outlook that would serve even the most avuncular of Senators well. As Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat said, “…any time you have a cross-section of American people in any decision making process, you improve the quality of decisions.” Nelson understands this as I believe many others in that body. But, the most significant of questions is what will be done? Think about the debate on the high levels of poverty and inequality in this nation that could be had with more African Americans in the Senate.
We have to ask ourselves the question: How can we further perfect our union and make good on the promises of the founding fathers? 1 African American Governor out of 50, 0 United States Senators out of 100, and 43 Congressman/woman out of 435 is NOT getting it done. We need real action, organization, and people who are willing to step up to make this a worthwhile cause. I’m willing to bear that burden not only for my people, but my state and my country. America deserves better. American can do better than what we have produced. If Democrats and Republicans want to really get serious, then more African American candidates need to be sought out. Furthermore, they’ll need the backing financially of the party and the organization to win these races.
This is an opportunity for 2014 and beyond to see the Senate have African-American membership and to eradicate the myth of a sign that hangs from the North Wing of the United States Capitol reading “For Whites Only.” Can it be done? Yes, but only with a concerted effort of collective responsibility and determination of individuals who want to make history and fight for the issues of our time. It starts now!