Saturday, September 16, 2006

Two Views of the MBD

Jonathan Martin (behind a TNR firewall) and Terry Smith both comment on the election of White representatives in majority Black districts (MBDs). It's interesting to see how each frames the issue. Mr. Martin focuses on Tennessee's 9th district (vacated by Harold Ford Jr. for his Senate run). A White Jewish Democrat by the name of Steve Cohen (who pledged that, if elected, he would seek to become the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus) just won a heavily divided Democratic primary with 31% of the vote. Mr. Martin focuses on some of the tensions between Jews and Blacks that emerged here, specifically the feeling amongst many Jews that their strong civil rights background gets ignored and that they just get lumped into a generic category of "White" without any distinguishment or qualification. Sometimes, though, the problems go beyond that:
One black candidate publicly pointed out that Cohen's election would mean that "for the first time in thirty years," the city "could be without African American representation." Another paid for a push poll in which recipients were reportedly asked, "Are you more likely to vote for a born-again Christian or a Jew?" A third, just three days before the primary, went even further. Pouncing on Cohen's pledge to join the CBC, longtime Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton sneered, "The only reason he wants to join is that he wants to get money for Israel."

It's a mistake to overstate things--Mr. Cohen had strong showings in minority precincts, and just won the endorsement of the black mayors of both Shelby County and Memphis (which is not just a case of "anyone but the GOP." Another member of the locally dynastic Ford family has jumped into the race as an independent). Still, I think that it is important to at least recognize the Jewish cross-cuts Whiteness as an identity, so that when analyzing these races, we at least keep the issue in mind.

Professor Smith's Garvey-esque Black nationalism has always grated me, and this post is no different. He talks about both the Tennessee race, as well as the just concluded race in New York's 11th district, where a Black Democrat narrowly beat out a White Democrat in a tight four-way race. Smith comes down hard on both White politicians who seek to exploit divisions in the Black vote in MBDs, as well as overly ambitious Black politicians who put these seats at risk because they care more about their own advancement than coalescing behind one candidate and thus insuring that the seat remains in Black hands. To the former, he argues "a white candidate whose candidacy in a black district per se illustrates an indifference to black under-representation [cannot] possibly claim to be capable of representing black interests[.]" To the latter, he claims:
The struggles to obtain a black franchise, the lives that were lost, and more specifically the efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were not endeavors to create employment opportunities for black political aspirants. In the words of the Voting Rights Act itself, the goal was to give black voters equal opportunity "to participate in the political process and to elect the representatives of their choice." I think that goal is lost on black candidates when they risk black representation for their own advancement.

I think there is a fair amount of presumption in these post, especially with regards to how much of the votes of the "splinter" Black candidates would have gone to Cohen or David Yassky (the White candidate in New York) had they dropped out. Cohen, at least, ran relatively strong in Black precincts, as noted above, and unlike Yassky, he is longtime denizen of the district and didn't move there to run. Smith also complains that even when Black candidates win in MBD, a White minority there can still act as a moderating influence that prevents them from selecting the precise candidate the community would want. I'm not a fan of "majority of my majority" politics in the first place, and the example he uses (Cynthia McKinney's "struggles") seems to buttress my point: any system that knocks her out of office (especially when it replaces her with another solid Black representative) counts as a feature in my book, not a bug.

But the worst part is at the end, where Professor Smith calls for (in so many words) the creation of Black political machines:
Black voters will ultimately have to take matters into their own hands by forming strong community-based satellite parties (often referred to as political clubs) to conduct informal caucuses among black aspirants as a means of winnowing the field. There's nothing to compel the losers in such a process to abide the results, but there is likewise nothing to prevent the satellite party from punishing the sore loser, both by concentrating resources on its preferred candidate and by visiting electoral and professional retribution on the black candidate who risks a district's loss of black representation for his own personal interests.

Forming machines like this may help keep Black faces in congress, but in it is a virtual recipe for corrupt and unrepresentative politicians who will do nothing but shame the Black community. That's the case of any machine, mind you--but it should set off alarms when you want to bring that type of trouble onto your own community. Certainly, any person who claims to appreciate history, as Smith does, should know that machines are completely antithetical to the goal of "equal opportunity 'to participate in the political process and to elect the representatives of their choice.'"

I understand the desire for diverse representation, and I support the principle--I really do. But there has to be some crossover point where color is subjugated to content. Creating a machine system in Black communities would be catastrophic for that community's interests. Albert Wynn and Sharpe James are machine politicians. Barack Obama and Cory Booker are the politicians one gets when Black voters push politicians who have genuine talent and universal appeal. Who do you think is going to do more for the Black community?


RachelsTavern said...

I don't think that machine politics is good, but I'm not sure that we have either that or the Cory Booker's and Barak Obama's. I'm also not sure how much good the Booker and Obama are going to do for the Black community as a whole. My sense is that their contribution to advancing African American causes is more about showing white people that Black people are "mainstream." (I use that word very loosely.) In fact part of their appeal to whites is that they are atypical Blacks. Obama is biracial and Booker is from a well to do family and is an Ivy league graduate.

The religion is issue is also interesting because it was a big issue in the NY race too. The Orthodox Jews rallied around the white candidate, but it was a little unclear who Blacks were leaning toward. From what I hear there also seems to be a very strong voting block among the Orthodox, something akin to what the professor above seems to be argung for.

Just from the general description you have given above it sounds like Cohen would be a much better candidate for a majority black district than Yasky.

RachelsTavern said...

Sorry for the typos