electoral progress for minorities – the historical record – NACD

cross posted from Daily Kos

The frontrunners for the Democratic nomination for president are a woman, Hillary Clinton, and a black man, Barack Obama.  Both are United States Senators.  Nominating either would represent a major advance for a group that has been under-represented in the national government.  This relatively brief diary, which is Not A Candidate Ddiary because it does not advocate for or against a presidential candidate, will examine the history of both groups – blacks and women – in the United States Congress.   If we think that underrepresentation is an example of injustice in a Democratic system, and IF we wish to consider making a statement about equity as part of our decision making about for whom we will vote knowing the history of representation in Congress might be useful.   Even if we intend to ignore issues of race and gender in our own voting, it might serve some purpose to be aware of the history, and hence this diary.

I am only going to examine post-Reconstruction, as during the time that US troops occupied the states of the Old Confederacy, there were African-Americans in both the House (elected by the people) and the Senate (two elected by the Mississippi legislature).  

I also want to put representation into the context of the right to vote.  Blacks in theory got a national right to vote through the 15th Amendment (which Frederick Douglass considered their Jubilee, the final liberation from slavery) in 1870.  Women nationally got an equivalent right in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment, although a number of states, particularly in the West, had already granted women the right to vote.

(I am using a variety of sources, including official information from the U S Senate, Wikipedia and a number of other sources.  I have tried to adjust the date they provide based on more recent events, such as the death of Julia Carson – thus if you were to examine the data it might be slightly different than what I present, although it will not significantly alter the picture presented).

Let’s begin with the U. S. House of Representatives.   After Reconstruction,7 Republicans from the South served in the House, the last being  George Henry White of NC  who served from 1897-1901 as the only Black member during more than half a century.   The next black elected was Oscar De Priest from the South Side of Chicago in 1928. He was also the last Black Republican Congressman elected until Gary Franks of CT was elected in 1990, and the only additional Black Republican House Member was J C Watts of OK.  A total of 99 African-Americans have served as voting members of the US House of Representatives, and there are currently 40, of whom the senior member is John Conyers of MI, elected in 1964.

By contrast, 216 women have served in the House, the first being Jeannette Rankin of MT, first elected in 1916, serving one term, and then being elected again in 1940:  this gave her the opportunity and the distinction of being the only Member to vote against the Declarations of War for both World Wars.   With the death of Julia Carson, there are now 73 women currently serving in the House.

The Senate has had a total of 35 women serve, of whom there are currently 16 (with 3 states having two women):  Feinstein and Boxer of CA; Snowe and Collins of ME; Murray and Cantwell of WA; Mikulski of MD; Lincoln of AR; Landrieu of LA; Hutchison of TX; Klobuchar of MN; McCaskill of MO; Stabenow of MI; Murkowski of AK; Clinton of NY; ad Dole of NC.  The first women to serve was Rebecca Latimer Felton of GA, who was appointed to serve symbolically – for a total of 24 hours!  She was in her late 80s at the time.  The first to be elected, Hattie Wyatt Caraway of AR, orginally took office when appointed as her husband’s successor upon his death, and was subsequently elected twice in her own right, although she failed to get the nomination for an additional term.  A number of women who served in the Senate gained office by appointment upon the deaths of their husbands, the most recent occasion being Jeanne Carnahan appointed when her deceased husband Mel was elected over incumbent John Ashcroft from MO.   On the 16 current incumbents, all are in terms for which they were elected, although Murkowski orginally obtained office when appointed by her father whose seat became vacant when he became governor of Alaska, and one might argue that both Dole and Clinton had the advantage of being married to notable politicians, although both also had substantial credentials of their own.

Only three blacks have ever been elected to the United States Senate, and from only two state.   Republican Ed Brooke of MA was elected in 1966, serving two terms until defeated by Paul Tsongas in 1978.  Carol Mosely Braun served 1993-1999 from IL until defeated by Peter Fitzgerald, whose retirement after one term left the vacancy which Barack Obama filled with his election in 2004.  

A look at executive experience finds 29 women who have served in that capacity (one of whom was acting for one week and never sworn in), of whom seven (Minner – DE; Lingle – HA; Granholm – MI; Sebelius – KS; Napolitano – AZ; Rell – CT; Gregoire – WA; Palin – AK) currently serve.  By contrast, only 2 blacks have since Reconstruction served as Governors, L. Douglas Wilder in VA, and currently Deval Patrick in MA.

Obviously one could examine the historical record and argue either side of the argument as to which group has been or is currently less represented in the highest levels of government.   I will leave that argument to others.  Women make up more than half our population, with the US Census bureau saying that as of 2005 nationally there are 96.5 males for every 100 females.    !2.8% of the population in 2004 was African-American, with that number rising to 13.4% if those of mixed race including Africa-American are added in  (both sets of data are available in reports from the Census bureau available here).  I think it important to note that both groups have been traditionally underrepresented.  

Further, it is worth noting that most of those African-Americans elected to the House have been from predominantly if not majority African_American districts, which is why there is such a discrepancy if one exams the comparative ratios of House to Senate between women and blacks.   And while a variety of studies have shown that at each quintile of income blacks vote more heavily than do white, the skewing of our African-American population towards the lowest two quintiles of income means that overall blacks vote at a lower rate than whites – this may account for some of the differential, as no state is majority black in population: as of 2005 the Census bureau says that the states with the highest percentage of blacks are MS with 36.9%,  LA with 33.1%, and SC with 29.2 (and those LA figures are pre-Katrina:  given the skewing of the dislocated being heavily black, that rate should be somewhat lower).  By contrast, the two states that have elected blacks as Governors or US Senators have lower ratios.   Virginia now has 19,9%, which is probably somewhat lower than it was when Wilder was elected; IL is 15.1%, and MA is 6.9%.   One might argue that the election of people like Patrick and Obama represents a far greater achievement in those states than does the election of any woman, but I’m not certain how strong that makes the case for suggesting for example that Obama would therefore be a stronger candidate nationwide than either Clinton or Edwards.

I offer this diary for informational purposes.  For myself I find it somewhat odd that we have not been willing to elect a female as head of government when so many other nations, including some that are Muslim (Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesis) have already done so.   On the other hand, the ongoing wound in the American pysche is still race, and I do not doubt the symbol that the election of an African-American might represent around the world.  In making the foregoing remarks I in no way denigrate the candidacy of John Edwards, regardless of his current standing in the polls.   But the focus of this diary is on the issue of minority participation in the highest elected offices in our nation.

I hope this has been of some value.



    • pfiore8 on January 12, 2008 at 17:33


Comments have been disabled.