Hang around politics long enough, and it becomes difficult to ignore the growing perception that the Democratic Party takes African-Americans for granted.
This message is echoed in black churches, at barbershops, on talk shows, and even at family gatherings, and the U.S. Senate race has provided an interesting template for how these sentiments may play out.
During the Democratic primary, Jim Webb's stances on affirmative action and the red-meat rhetoric of his writings caused a stir among orthodox Democrats and black voters, and Harris Miller's campaign was effective at exploiting this issue to hurt Webb. Given this, Sen. George Allen's campaign was compelled to take that ball and run with it, if only to avoid failing Politics 101.
However, amidst the cacophony of this hotly contested election, the reality of the Democratic Party's respect for the African-American community has been cast aside. As Election Day draws near, it seems prudent to explore some pertinent facts before final judgment is cast.
Historically, the powers-that-be in the Virginia Democratic Party were not always open to black political advancement. The history of the Byrd organization is well-documented, and its remnants stuck with the party into the 1980s and early 1990s, sometimes frustrating African-American interests. But anyone who thinks of the Democratic Party as static has been asleep for quite some time.
In 21st-century Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner was very popular among African-Americans, and Gov. Tim Kaine's reputation in the black community is arguably approaching Clintonian levels in the commonwealth. Blacks play a number of critical roles, from the grass roots to the top echelons of leadership, with significant numbers serving on the governing committees of the state party and several running competitive primary races over time. Virginia Democrats ran black candidates for U.S. Congress in 1998, 2001 and 2005, and post-Wilder, an African-American was nominated for attorney general in 2001.
Taking a look at the General Assembly shows that blacks make up around 30 percent of the Democratic caucuses in both the House of Delegates (12 of 40) and Senate (5 of 17). Should Democrats take over either chamber in the future, it can be expected that a number of committee and subcommittee chairmanships would go to African-American Democratic legislators. Along the same lines, when Virginia's Democratic congressional delegation convenes, one of its three (33 percent) representatives is an African-American. These proportions are mostly in line with the black proportion of the Democratic Party's statewide vote tally and actually exceed the overall black percentage of Virginia's total population (18 percent).
Life may not be peachy-keen with Democrats and blacks in certain communities, but from a statistical standpoint, Democrats have done a commendable job of bringing African-Americans to the table of power in the party. By no means is this meant to imply that everything is just swell or that history has lost its sting.
While even more advancement may be in order, to act as if blacks are now second-class citizens in the Democratic Party is just plain dishonest, especially when compared with the Republicans' history.
Virginia's GOP has a spotty record of actually producing black officeholders or notable leaders at state and federal levels. There are no black Republicans in the General Assembly or in the congressional delegation. Aside from Winsome Sears' somewhat quixotic attempt to unseat Rep. Bobby Scott in 2004, Republicans have not put forward African-Americans for prominent elected positions, and there are only a handful of black Republican elected officials serving at the municipal level throughout the commonwealth.
As it stands, the Democratic Party gets 85 percent of the black vote, and blacks are 30 percent of its elected officials. On the other hand, the Republican Party gets 15 to 20 percent of the black vote, and blacks are zero percent of its notable elected officials. For the self-proclaimed "Party of Lincoln," that math seems a bit fuzzy.
Still, the decision by a number of black political, civic, religious and media leaders to support Sen. Allen should not be a total surprise. Political observers have long noted that black Virginians tend to support the GOP in stronger numbers than blacks nationally, a subject worthy of a doctoral dissertation. This support is rather steady despite African-Americans having gained little in terms of positions of power within the Republican Party of Virginia or in reaching elected office under the Republican banner.
Appointments and staff openings should not be discounted, but in an election-driven political system, a party's most powerful gesture occurs when it offers candidates to the voting public. The presence or dearth of African-American standard-bearers on the ballot sends a strong message about whom and what the Democratic and Republican parties welcome and support.
While Democrats cannot ignore increased attraction of blacks to the ideas and issues of the Republican Party and the accompanying courtship, intellectual honesty demands asking what black Virginians have gained in terms of electoral successes from their higher-than-normal affinities for the GOP. It's difficult for many Democrats not to concede that the diversification of black political identification is good for blacks and the overall racial dynamics of Virginia and national politics, even as it causes persistent heartburn for the Democratic Party.
Nonetheless, as Democrats welcome the rise in competition for the political affections of my African-American brothers and sisters, Republicans must be challenged to go beyond uplifting rhetoric to produce real results on the ballots and in its halls of party power. For despite occasional Democratic slips, the Republican Party of Virginia has a lot farther to walk if its platitude-laced talk is to have real meaning. S
Conaway B. Haskins III is a writer and Democratic activist who lives in Chesterfield County and publishes the blog www.southofthejames.com.
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