By Roger House
This Friday, the myopic vision of some in the Washington Black political class will be on full display. First, the media pundit Al Sharpton will lead his supporters in yet another march on Washington to protest police brutality and pressure liberal allies to pass a federal law for something already banned under state laws – the killing of innocent people by bad cops.
The march will be followed by the return of members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to the House of Representatives. Some will return from recess perhaps privately chastened by a disappointing experience with the vice presidential nomination process. The Biden campaign no doubt bruised some egos when it bypassed qualified House members with roots in civil rights history and instead chose Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) for the ticket.
In combination, the events underscore a lack of imagination in the national Black political game plan. Despite the critical role of Black voters in the Democratic Party, their leaders have been relegated to begging favors from coalition partners in the Democratic establishment.
And even supporters of Harris’s selection can appreciate that the vice presidency is largely a ceremonial position unless there is a crisis in the presidency. Sure, the VP, as president of the Senate, may come in handy on occasion when there is a tie vote. For the most part, however, the office is not worth “a warm bucket of spit” — or perhaps, earthier language – as James Nance Garner is quoted to have said in 1933 when selected by Franklin Roosevelt.
Moreover, if voters elect the Biden-Harris ticket, it will result in a net loss of one of the few people of color in the Senate. That means the Black political class has a chance to replace that seat if it acts now in a strategic and independent way — members of the CBC can focus on expanding Black political power in the states.
Right now, no campaign is more likely to add a Black member to the Senate than the campaign of Raphael Warnock in Georgia. CBC members can help Warnock with raising funds, promoting turnout, and establishing a position independent of the liberal wing.
The Rev. Warnock is a 50-year old Savannah-native and minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He recently came to national attention when presiding over the Georgia funeral of the late Congressman John Lewis. He stands a good chance of becoming the first Black U.S. Senator from the Peach State. He is vying for the seat currently held by the Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler.
Under the state’s open election process, there are over 20 candidates in the race including white liberals in a position to siphon off votes. Their participation could diminish Warnock’s chance to make history. It is an illustration, once again, that the coalition with white liberals is often a one-way street.
Such imbalances in the Democratic party should not come as a surprise. In “Black Power: the politics of liberation in America,” authors Kwame Ture (formerly, Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton cautioned against the pitfalls of coalitions between unequal groups. The weaker group is prone to manipulation by the more powerful ally. The alliance is not so much an equal coalition as a transactional agreement.
Warnock, though, may be in a unique position to nurture a political realignment in Georgia politics. The Black population constitutes over 30 percent of the state and are on the verge of establishing a sustainable political power base. Warnock, although supported by some prominent national liberals, could show a streak of independence. He could serve as an emissary to the white evangelical churches in the state. The CBC should give him space to explore areas of mutual interest with white Christian groups – the value of life through the expansion of Medicaid and other programs shaped by faith.
A Warnock victory would lay the foundation for a new political direction for Blacks in Georgia and other Southern states. It might even encourage Black college graduates and retirees living in the declining cities of the Midwest to consider moving to the state and helping to grow the voter base.
The Democrats VP nomination process may allow the Black political class to focus on new opportunities of real value. Already, cultural figures have highlighted the promise of the Warnock campaign: players in the Women’s National Basketball Association, for example, called attention to the campaign through social media.
Over the next two months, the CBC has an opportunity to engage with the Warnock campaign. Even if the campaign is unsuccessful, the outreach effort to evangelical groups could result in the formation of new networks of mutual interest. And should the campaign be successful, the Black political class could claim a historical landmark of its own making.
Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” This commentary is reprinted courtesy of The Hill.