Obama and national black politics

There's been little discussion of the impact of Obama's election on national black politics.

By Thomas Schaller
December 17, 2008 9:24PM (UTC)
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Barack Obama's election as the first black president has triggered all sorts of conversations about what it means for this country's racial identity, healing its racial wounds, the meaning of minority or mixed-race candidates and multi-racial voting coalitions. Put another way, and not too mildly, not all but a lot of the talk is about what Obama's election means for white politicians and white voters.

There's been less discussion of what it means for black politics nationally. It's not in Obama's administration to emphasize his significance to organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the National Black Caucus of State Legislators -- all organizations with which Obama has been affiliated.


I decided to check in with three Maryland members of Congress -- two present, one former -- to see what they make of all this. I wrote about it for my Baltimore Sun column this week. Some excerpts:

"The euphoria that we're seeing around the country is the same in the black community," [4th District Rep. Donna] Edwards said. "I don't know that there are different expectations from members of the Congressional Black Caucus or from my African-American constituents. But there is a sense that so many things of concern to the black community that were off the table are back on the table again."

She specifically cited urban policy and "the agenda of working people" as areas that would be "elevated" in the Obama White House . . .

National black political institutions also stand to make gains.

"In terms of the CBC, they are now faced with the welcome prospect of a White House that's less of an adversary and more of a partner," said [Kweisi] Mfume, who served five terms in Congress before becoming president of the Baltimore-based NAACP.

Mr. Mfume, who spent most of 2008 giving surrogate speeches on behalf of the Obama campaign, mainly in the Midwest, says the NAACP also should be able to capitalize on Mr. Obama's ascendancy.

"The NAACP will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year," he noted. "Obama's election gives [the NAACP] a great opportunity to expand its outreach and ability to gather support from a wider selection of Americans."

[Seventh District Rep. Elijah] Cummings was very involved at high levels in the Obama campaign. In the days before Maryland's primary, he hosted a major rally in downtown Baltimore for the Illinois senator.

"I think Barack's election is a turning point in this sense: You will have more African-Americans running in predominantly white districts, like for governor or legislative seats in a 90 percent white district," Mr. Cummings predicts. "I think you're going to see a lot more African-Americans holding office."

Though he says black officials and candidates will be more visible, Mr. Cummings also cautioned that the new attention will increase pressure on black elites.

"Obama also sets a higher standard," he said. "He is absolutely brilliant, and he comes to the political arena totally prepared. Although he will make black candidates more visible, it puts more responsibility on them."

I sense a tendency, both in the White House and within a very excited black political community, to go slow and give Obama the room he needs to pursue black interests without having to identify himself thusly. That is very smart, politically.

But just because there's not much attention being paid to national black politics doesn't not mean that national black politicians and organizations are not paying attention -- or that they should be overlooked.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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