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February 19, 2006
The Wrong Tipping Point

Newsweek, in its new article titled "A Real Racial Tipping Point," argues that we have finally reached a point where race may not matter as much in politics. But Newsweek picks the wrong tipping point in its focus:

It is not just that so many blacks—in both parties—are running for top positions, but that their candidacies are seen as something other than symbolic. In Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr. has his heart set on the U.S. Senate, as do Michael Steele and Kweisi Mfume in Maryland, as does Keith Butler in Michigan. And then there are the people running for governor: Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania—not to mention the host of candidates running for other lofty posts.

Mfume, a former congressman, predicts that 2006 will be a "watershed year... in terms of African-American participation in both parties." Carol Moseley Braun, the only black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate (1992), agrees: "We have reached a tipping point in which race and gender, which go hand in hand... matter a lot less. When I ran against [the then Sen.] Alan Dixon, people laughed at me," she recalls. Fewer people are laughing these days.

With blacks running major corporations, with two having served in succession as secretary of state and with three having won election to the Senate in the modern age, it is becoming harder to argue that blacks can't succeed at the top. And as more and more blacks accumulate the requisite experience, they naturally seek to move up. "Most of these people who stand a good chance have been around a while," says Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland.

Newsweek builds a strawman at the heart of this argument by making an argument that no one has seriously made in 30 years. Who has alleged that "blacks can't succeed at the top"? Surely not this administration, which has had more African-Americans in Cabinet roles than any other previous White House. Not the corporations which have promoted them to positions of executive power. Maybe the only areas in which progress for blacks has been painfully slow has been, ironically, in major professional and college sports, where except for basketball few have risen to top coaching and personnel positions.

The real racial tipping point, and the one that Newsweek misses, comes as more blacks have opened campaigns for national and gubernatorial offices as Republicans. Lynn Swann, Michael Steele, Ken Blackwell, and Keith Butler have made waves for identifying as conservatives or center-right candidates under the GOP banner, threatening the last bastion of Democratic lock-step voting. The Democrats know that if this trend continues and splits the national black vote beyond the 9-1 advantage they enjoy now, they will not be able to compete nationally against the Republicans.

The real question that should be asked is why we have reached this tipping point. Despite having a deathgrip on the black vote for four decades, the party has almost no leaders of African descent and have fielded almost no such candidates in national elections. Carol Mosely-Braun is the only black woman ever elected to the Senate; the Democrats, in their monopoly of that demographic, could never bother to find and support another? How many blacks have won mainstream Democratic support in races for governor or senator?

Up to now, it has been enough for the Democratic party to use the African-American community as a vote bank, and they have exploited it as such while giving few of them high-profile positions of power. It has been one of the least-rewarded dynamics of loyalty for any constituency in politics. In contrast, the Republicans have offered real leadership positions to those who support the GOP despite the embarrassingly small penetration the GOP gets in the African-American community. Newsweek should ask why Democrats apparently felt that blacks could not represent them in leadership instead.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 19, 2006 10:01 AM

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