Elections reveal halting progress on race

If we could go back in time to the night of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, and tell the political pundits of that day that in two years, we would be as polarized over race as we’ve ever been, I’m sure they would think we were insane. “We’ve just elected a black man as president of the United States,” they would tell us. “We’ve matured too much on race to ever go back.”

If only that were true.

They didn’t imagine a liberal establishment so unwilling to brook opposition that they’d stoop to declaring everyday Americans racists for exercising their First Amendment rights.

They didn’t envision a black community so defensive about the president they’ve embraced as one of their own that no one is allowed to criticize him for any reason.

They certainly didn’t predict the emergence of black Republicans and conservatives, with more black Republicans running for the U.S. Congress this year than any time in our nation’s history, including Reconstruction.

So what have this year’s elections told us so far about race?

The election in Baltimore City for state’s attorney took an interesting turn in the last days when a prominent black attorney, Billy Murphy, declared his support for white challenger Gregg Bernstein over 15-year black incumbent Patricia Jessamy.

On the surface, this would normally be considered a positive development, since he considered the qualifications of the candidates rather than their race in making his endorsement.  His initial statement, however, that “We believe, with justification, that a really excellent black lawyer should have that job”, was considered by some to be an admission that, all else being equal, race would normally be the primary factor in his electoral decisions. In this election, the message is mixed.

The message was more negative in the Washington DC mayor’s race. Vincent Gray defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty in a race that was decided largely along racial lines. Gray won big in predominantly black areas, and Fenty in predominantly white areas. Both men are black, but Fenty’s aloof style, the fact he didn’t appoint blacks to key positions, the firing of hundreds of school teachers as part of his aggressive school reform agenda, and the perception that he wasn’t sensitive to the needs of black communities, led to his defeat.

What’s disheartening about this outcome is the continuing need for black candidates to stroke the egos of their black constituents rather than govern based on what’s best for everyone. According to Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, Fenty's defeat "suggests that the model of deracialization might not be sustainable."

In other words, black candidates cannot expect to be successful running for office or governing without putting black interests first. President Obama gets a pass because he’s the president of the United States, and a black man in that position is a source of great pride in the black community even though, truth be told, he has largely ignored the civil rights agenda in favor of a broader leftist agenda.

Also, since he has come under intense criticism for his poor performance on the economy and jobs, his disdain for individual liberty and free markets, his record-breaking spending, his expansion of government into the financial services, health care and auto industries, and his apologist foreign policy – did I miss anything? - black people are defensive on his behalf and have rallied around him.

To find hope in this election cycle when it comes to race, one has to go back a few months when Tim Scott, a black conservative Republican, won the GOP nomination for a seat in the U.S. Congress from South Carolina. Given the conservative bent of his district, he is expected to be the first black Republican legislator on the Hill since J.C Watts, who stepped down in January 2003. But that’s not the most encouraging factor about his campaign.

It is this: Tim Scott defeated two men who were the sons of political icons in South Carolina. One was the son of the late governor Carroll Campbell, and the other was the son of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. He defeated the junior Campbell in the primary, and won decisively over Paul Thurmond in a runoff.

Consider what happened here. In the first state to secede from the Union in 1861 over slavery, in a founding state of the Confederacy, a black man defeated two white candidates with impeccable political pedigrees, not by running as a socialist or an advocate of a black agenda, but as an unapologetic conservative and defender of individual liberty, free markets and limited constitutional government.

To these southern voters, it didn’t matter that Scott was not a particularly light-skinned black man, which means he would fail the Harry Reid ‘paper bag’ test. It didn’t matter that his opponents were the offspring of two of South Carolina’s favorite sons. What mattered is his position on the issues.

This election, unlike the others, gives me hope that, if these southern voters can get over this national preoccupation with race, and pick the candidate of their choice based on qualifications and solutions, so can the rest of us.

Maybe time travelers coming to visit us today from the future can tell us the halting steps we’re taking toward eliminating race as a factor in the electoral process actually worked.