Racial Barrier Falls, the New York Times proclaimed in its much-noted headline the day after Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008. Everyone in the world, it seems, knows that Obama is the first African-American president of the United States. But a look at the political landscape two years into his presidency suggests that the racial barrier retains remarkable staying power. Today, as throughout American history, few blacks occupy the highest echelons of our elective politics.
The many hundreds of state governors in our history include only four African-Americans. The first was P.B.S. Pinchback, who served briefly in Louisiana during Reconstruction, the turbulent era following the Civil War when Southern blacks briefly enjoyed the right to vote and hold office. More than a century elapsed between Pinchback and the second black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who took office in 1990. Then came David Paterson of New York, for the past three years. Today the sole black governor is Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. And only he and Wilder were actually elected—the others were lieutenant governors who moved up after the governor’s impeachment or resignation.
Around 2,000 men and women have served in the Senate since the ratification of the Constitution 222 years ago, but only six have been African-American, a ratio far worse than one out of forty-four presidents. Indeed, only three of the fifty states have ever elected a black senator. The first two came during Reconstruction—Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce of Mississippi. After a hiatus of more than eighty years, Edward Brooke won election from Massachusetts in 1966. During the past twenty years, Carol Moseley-Braun, Obama and, most recently, Roland Burris have served from Illinois. But in the 112th Congress, which convened on January 5, not one of the 100 senators is black.
The new House of Representatives does have forty-two black members, not counting nonvoting delegates from the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. More than half represent predominantly black districts in states where slavery existed on the eve of the Civil War. And with some exceptions, those from the North and West, like New York’s Charles Rangel, serve constituencies with large African-American populations where they do not have to attract many white votes.
These figures offer a striking reminder of the almost insuperable barriers that have kept African-Americans from the most powerful offices in the land. Most blacks who have held high national positions have been appointed, not elected—for example, ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. Black candidates generally find it nearly impossible to win a majority of the white vote. Obama did when he ran for the Senate in 2004, but his Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, was also black—the only such contest in American history. In 2008 Obama carried only 43 percent of the white electorate.
Whatever Obama’s successes and failures as president, his election will remain a symbolic watershed in our country’s troubled racial history. The all-but-total absence of other blacks in the highest offices today underscores both Obama’s singular achievement and how far we remain from a postracial politics.