As Afro-Americans look to the 2020 elections, the midterm elections might have pointed the way to a new direction for Black politics in the 21st century. To fully understand the implications, however, will require a rethinking of political assumptions after the Obama era.
Since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, our political energy was rightly centered on gaining power in municipal government and congressional districts. The benefits were seen in the growth of Black representation in city councils, school boards, mayoralties and Black-majority congressional districts.
In recent decades, a new class of Afro-American politicians emerged with the ability to mobilize racially diverse and even majority-white locales. They have successfully represented diverse electorates at the local level, in Congress and, on occasion, in the Senate. This dynamic led to the election of Barack Obama in a diverse coalition that relied on large Black turnout.
One advantage to such arrangements is that the Black community retains a small measure of influence in the political discourse. A second is that it has created new opportunities for savvy politicians such as U.S. senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker.
The drawback, however, is that the core interests of our community are often marginalized when in competition with stronger interests in the coalition. Moreover, such arrangements gives undue encouragement to our politicians and communities to focus on the “trophy offices,” such as the U.S. Senate and presidency.
It might be time for Afro-American civic leaders to consider a change in political culture and direction. Should we fall in line for a rehash of the next Democratic Party script taken from the Obama era? Has our community gained most of what could be gained from the arrangement? These questions are legitimate to ask in light of the midterm election outcome.
The midterm election highlighted the often underestimated reality of political power in the American federal structure. It demonstrated the extent to which power resides in the states. Yet history shows that the states have been a frustrating arena of politics for our community. Our quest for statewide political influence has been denied since the violent overthrow of the Reconstruction governments in the 1880s.
The midterm elections provided an opportunity to confront this dilemma anew. Promising candidates in southern states ran credible campaigns for governor. Although they fell short of the mark, they came surprisingly close to breaking through the glass ceiling. It took ugly episodes of voter suppression activity and racist dog whistling to upset their momentum.
Now is not the time for our civic leaders to abandon this quest. Now is the time for a call to action to gain statewide political power in the South. Our leaders and media should encourage a broad conversation on this goal.
The strategy would be to nurture state organizations to mobilize voters and field candidates for the wide array of state offices, both elected and appointed: governor, secretary of state, attorney general, judgeships and legislative seats. The mission is to establish a base of influence to nurture the core political, economic and social interests of our community.
Such a movement will require an adjustment in the thinking of our political culture. And it might demand tactics that go outside the boundaries of traditional party politics. For example, to what extent should our community in South Carolina support Republican Sen. Tim Scott? Could a strategy of selective crossover voting empower him with the independence needed to promote our interests in conservative policies?
More to the point, the recent campaigns for governor established a benchmark for the vote margins needed to potentially win two key states. In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum lost to Republican Rick DeSantis by only 35,000 votes out of nearly 8 million votes cast. In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by approximately 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast.
The question is whether there are practical ways to close the gap in the coming years. In Florida, the solution might be in sight. Voters surprisingly passed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of 1.4 million ex-felons, about a third Afro-American men. These men, if engaged, could potentially swing the next election in favor of the Black community. It would require a concerted effort by Black civic leaders to register and mobilize this class.
The Georgia race is promising as well but might demand a different approach. For example, the state might benefit from a coordinated campaign of northern Blacks to participate in a targeted exodus to Georgia. Such a project might not be as audacious as it sounds.
Recall that in 1915, the Chicago Defender sponsored an exodus of sharecroppers to northern cities to flee conditions of oppression. Thousands of people participated in the urban movement of publisher Robert Abbott.
More than a century later, it might be time for a new migration targeted to Georgia with the intent of gaining statewide political control. A campaign of this type might be of particular interest to people near or in retirement. Older men and women might have access to the pensions, Social Security payments and other wealth instruments of financial independence. As such, they could contribute not only their votes but also their skills and time to the cause of winning political control of a state. Over time, the migration project could establish a solid political base for the young generation to carry forward.
This idea, of course, has been floated in different forms in the past. During the 1970s, nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam promoted the controversial idea of a “Black state” of autonomy. The concept was impractical on a number of levels, including the notion of carving out a state within existing states.
Under more nuanced thinking, however, an exodus movement to Georgia with political intent could breathe new life into this intriguing concept. Moreover, the project would mesh with the fundamental principles of the American federated political structure. The outcome could work to the advantage of Black community interests much as it has for the Mormon community in Utah.
Now might be the time for a new direction in Black political thinking. Enough with the repetitive pursuit of trophy offices. The interests of the community would best be served through the control of the political apparatus of targeted southern states. This project should be explored by our civic leaders as the political goal of the 21st century.
Roger House is an associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College in Boston.