Bye-bye Roland Burris; Hello same old Senate

OPINION - The situation regarding diversity in the upper chamber of Congress, or the lack of it, is troubling to say the least...

It’s 2010, and America has a black president but not a single black person in the U.S. Senate. In his farewell speech, Senator Roland Burris (D-Ill.) said it is “troubling” that there will be no blacks in the U.S. Senate when he leaves at the end of the month. Burris was appointed by then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to complete the remainder of Sen. Obama’s term when he left for the White House.

“When the one hundred and twelfth Congress is sworn in this coming January, there will not be a single black American who takes the oath of office in this chamber.” This is simply unacceptable. We can — and we will — and we must do better,” Burris said.

And the senator lamented that “our political progress has proven less accessible – and less representative — than it ought to be.” “Letters, emails, telephone calls have poured into my office from black Americans from all across the country. And at times, as I have tried to bring their voices into this chamber, I have acutely felt the absence of any other black person to represent them,” Burris noted.

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Senator Burris is right. The situation regarding diversity in the upper chamber of Congress, or the lack of it, is troubling to say the least. In the most recent midterm elections, three black candidates ran for Senate from a major party — Rep. Kendrick Meek in Florida, Michael Thurmond in Georgia, and Alvin Greene in South Carolina. And all of them lost. Meek was deserted by some Democrats, who treated him like a black sheep and deserted him in favor of Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist. Former President Clinton reportedly spoke to Meek in an effort to convince him to drop out of the race and avoid a Republican victory. The Republican, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, won the race. Thurmond, currently Georgia’s labor commissioner, lost to incumbent Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), in what was considered a safe Republican seat.

Meanwhile, Alvin Greene was widely regarded as a Republican plant hired to split the black vote and guarantee victory for incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint. Never regarded as a serious candidate, Greene appeared listless, clueless, and perhaps even medicated throughout the campaign season.

Other African-Americans ran without success. For example, Maryland Green Party senatorial candidate Natasha Pettigrew was killed by an SUV in September, and Colia Clark was the Green Party pick from New York. Independent conservative candidate Milton Gordon ran and lost in Louisiana’s Senate race, and conservative Milton Thorpe, a medical doctor, lost to Rubio in this year’s Republican primary. And Cheryle Jackson, president of the Urban League, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination to replace Burris. And Harold Ford, Jr. senatorial aspirations in New York quickly faded in light of accusations of carpetbagging, and flip flopping on abortion and gay marriage.

Burris noted that throughout the 200 year history of the U.S. Senate and 111 Congresses, only six black senators have served. No more than one ever served at a given time. Two black senators from Mississippi served during Reconstruction — Hiram Revels in 1870, and Blanche K. Bruce from 1875 to 1881. Liberal Republican Sen. Edward Brooke (MA) served from 1967-1979. The three other senators — Carol Moseley Braun, President Obama and Burris — are all Chicago Democrats.
The first African-American admitted to the Senate, Hiram Revels filled a seat that was vacated due to Mississippi’s secession from the Union and the Civil War that followed. Some Democrats attempted to block Revels by citing the Dred Scott decision, claiming his election by his state’s legislature was null and void, and he was not a citizen until 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted, making him ineligible. But he was seated, and served as “a representative of the State, irrespective of color.” Revels’ Republican colleague, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, realized the significance of the moment: “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration, and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality…. The Declaration was only half established by Independence. The greatest duty remained behind. In assuring the equal rights of all we complete the work.”

The following year, Revels’ term expired. 140 years later, blacks are now back to square one. As the legislative body has been for most of its history, the U.S. Senate will remain a predominantly white-male body, with only 16 women, two Asian-Americans, and two Hispanics. Tragically, the man who is replacing Burris, Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R-lll.), led a voter intimidation effort to suppress the black vote in this past election.

For blacks, the implications of a Senate without black people are clear. Their interests and perspective risk falling by the wayside, despite the presence of white lawmakers who have demonstrated a commitment to the black community. In 1991, during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the legislative body had no blacks and only two women. African-American and women observers alike were offended by the disrespectful treatment of Anita Hill by the white-male members of the Senate Judiciary committee — as Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The backlash led to the election of more women senators, including an African-American woman.


The problem is that few black candidates are running for Senate. Democrats need black votes but take black voters for granted, and do not seem to cultivate or support black senatorial hopefuls. As for the GOP, despite electing two blacks to the Congress, diversity is not a priority for a party determined to take “their” country back from a black president. An in any case, black Republican candidates often reflect an agenda that is an anathema to an overwhelmingly Democratic black electorate.

Perhaps the best example of the challenges facing blacks who run for the Senate is the example of Harvey Gantt. In 1990 and 1996, Gantt waged two campaigns against the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). In the 1990 election, Helms released a campaign commercial showing white hands ripping up a rejection letter, and suggesting that the job was given to a “less qualified minority.” Helms’ race-baiting apparently worked, with the incumbent winning with 52.2 percent to Gantt’s 47.4 percent. Making up around 13 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans are faced with the reality that they are not a majority in any of the 50 states. There is a reality that some whites still will not vote for a black candidate.

Besides, since we already have a black president, this is enough if not too much for some people. However, a number of states have sizable black populations in which their vote can make a difference in sending an African-American to the Senate — such as Illinois, which is 15 percent black. Apparently, states with a relatively low black population such as Massachusetts (7.1 percent) are liberal and open-minded enough to elect African-Americans to statewide office. Paradoxically, some of the blackest states—such as Mississippi (37.5 percent black), Louisiana (31.6 percent) and Alabama (26.2 percent) seem to be the most conservative in terms of white racial attitudes.

Looking ahead, some potential future candidates for Senate include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, and Illinois state legislators Kwame Raoul and Will Burns. On the GOP side is Michael Williams, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. An appointee of both President George H.W. Bush and Gov. George W. Bush, Williams is the highest ranking African-American in Texas politics, and the first elected statewide.

“Our government hardly resembles the diverse country it was elected to represent,” Burris said on the Senate floor. “Too often, our politics seems to have become a zero-sum game. It’s easy for people to feel that the best argument, or the plainest truth, won’t necessarily win the day any more. And such a destructive political environment, people are often left wondering who will speak up for them,” he said.

When I look at the absence of blacks in the Senate, I am reminded of a scene from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Buggin Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, is ordering pizza at Sal’s Pizzeria. He looks at the wall and notices a wall filled with pictures of famous Italian-Americans. “How come you got no brothers up on the wall?” Buggin Out asks Mookie, played by Lee. Sal responds, “You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you what you wanna do….This is my pizzeria.”

Well, the U.S. Senate is not Sal’s, and representative government is supposed to reflect the interests of all Americans, including African-Americans. But it doesn’t, and we have work to do. So much for a post-racial America.