Black Political Power Vanishes Across the South

President Obama
President Obama

When President Barack Obama arrives in New Orleans on Wednesday to speak before the National Urban League annual conference, he will touch down in a state where his party, less than a month before the qualifying deadline, has yet to find a congressional candidate for any district outside the Black-majority seat held by Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.

For Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, who seized control of the party from Buddy Leach in April, it is a year for “grassroots rebuilding.” But so too was last year, when the party failed to field a single major candidate for any statewide office, including governor.

Rebuilding is certainly the order of the day for the Democratic Party across much of the South, where the party’s fortunes are lower than at any time since the end of Reconstruction, and where Black political influence has suffered a sudden, symbiotic decline.

“Black  voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era,” David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, wrote in a stark analysis late last year. It is the culmination of nearly a half-century process that began with the dismantling of Jim Crow, the empowerment of Black voters and an explosion in Black representation, but that now finds its ironic coda in a once-dominating Democrat Party transformed into a largely African-American enterprise that is only occasionally able to scrounge enough White votes to compete effectively outside Black districts. The result has been the loss of legislative control in every Southern state save Arkansas.

“In most Southern states, the 46-year transition from a multiracial Democratic political dominance is almost complete,” Bositis wrote. “At the heart of this transition is racially polarized voting. Black state legislators, generally elected in Black majority districts and long used to being in a majority coalition, are now almost entirely isolated in the minority. Republicans likewise dominate the statewide political offices in these states. Virtually all Black elected officials are outsiders looking in.”

Sea change in capitols

For Democrats and African-Americans in the South, there appears no easy way out. The numbers in Bositis’ brief are dramatic.

Before the 1994 Republican landslide, 99.5 percent of all Black state legislators in the South were serving in the majority. After that election, the number dipped to 83.9 percent. By 2010, another fateful election year for Democrats, barely half of Southern Black legislators were in the majority. By 2011, that number had plummeted to 4.8 percent.

“A resegregation in politics has taken place,” Bositis wrote. “The achievement of complete power at the state level by people who support politics and actions that African-Americans oppose means that for the near future that legislation and budgeting in the South is unlikely to be aimed at helping African-Americans no matter how bad their unemployment levels, how poor their schools and dropout rates, and no matter how bad their health disparities. Those with power have also sought to push further into the future any relief or redress by making more difficult for Black voices to be heard at the polls.”

It’s a stunning and frightening turn of events.

As Donna Brazile, a Louisiana-born politico and vice chairwoman of voter registration and participation for the Democratic National Committee, put it in an email this week: “We have come a long way, but the future looks bleak. We have to find a way to elect more Southern moderates.”

But how?

President’s strained image

Upon taking over leadership of Louisiana’s Democrats, Peterson, the second African-American to helm the state party, declared her support for Obama’s “courage and leadership” in backing same-sex marriage, a statement unlikely to moderate the party’s image.

Artur Davis, a former Alabama congressman whose bid to become the first Black governor of Alabama foundered when he lost to a more liberal White candidate in the 2010 Democratic primary, said that although he knows and admires Peterson, aligning more closely with the president is no way to broaden the party’s appeal in the region.

The president is the most unpopular political figure in the South in decades, said Davis, who has moved to Virginia and is switching to the Republican Party. But, Davis said, there are those, both Black and White, who are happy to remain the minority party as long as they keep their perks in convention tickets and some say in federal court selections.

In the 2008 presidential election, Obama received 14 percent of the White vote in Louisiana, the lowest of any state except Alabama, at 10 percent, and Mississippi at 11 percent.

In the 2010 U.S. Senate election, Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, a Cajun Blue Dog Democrat, won 22 percent of the White vote against Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

‘Absolutely at low ebb’

Outside Richmond’s Black majority district, there are two other Louisiana congressional districts — the 4th and 5th — where about 35 percent of the voting population is Black. But Bositis said that is still shy of the 40 percent that an African-American Democrat would need to stand a decent chance of prevailing in a state with a history of racially polarized voting like Louisiana.

For University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, the current state of affairs is a consequence of decades of Voting Rights Act enforcement, court decisions, and an alliance between Black Democrats and White Republicans to maximize the number of Black-majority districts at the expense of White Democrats, a process he said poisoned the well for White and Black Democrats.

Former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields, now a Baton Rouge attorney, said the despair for the future of Louisiana Democrats is misplaced.

“I do see a bright future for the Democratic Party in Louisiana,” said Fields, who said it was not too late for quality candidates to emerge before the Aug. 15-17 qualifying for this year’s congressional campaigns.

But Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said Southern Democrats are confronting “the end of a 45-year, nearly 50-year, process,” and there is no denying that “right now Democrats are absolutely at low ebb.”

Change will come — generational, racial, demographic — but it comes far faster in some places than others.

For example, between 2000 and 2010, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, there was a net gain of 2 million children in America, half of that in Texas alone, and 95 percent of the net gain in Texas was Latino.

It’s numbers like that that led the president to remark at a recent fundraiser in San Antonio, “You’re not considered one of the battleground states, although that’s going to be changing soon.”

It is not a line that Obama will likely deliver Wednesday in Louisiana.


By; Jonathan Tilove