Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Black Representative of the White Electorate

There is a great article in the NY Times Magazine by Nicholas Dawidoff entitled Race in the South in the Age of Obama. The article, which is beautifully written, brings to light local black politicians in places in the deep South who have managed to win elections in predominantly white electoral districts. The Article raises two questions for me. First, what does it cost black elected officials (or would be elected officials) to run for office in predominantly white electoral districts in the deep South. Second, are these black elected officials indicators of the future of black politics. Put differently, are we witnessing the demise of the justification for majority-minority districts (districts in which voters of color--the minority--are the majority of the electorate)? In this post, I will address the first question.

The main character in the article is James Fields, a black Alabamian who represents Cullman County, Alabama in the state legislature. Cullman County is 97% white and is regarded by white people in Birmingham Alabama (yes that Birmingham) "as the racist white bigot county." These are voters who seem to despise President Obama but who seem to love their own black representative. In one of the more understated statements I have read in a while, Dawidoff writes, "In Alabama, this is of course saying something."

Part of Dawidoff's point in this article is that racist white people (Dawidoff did not call them racist, but his descriptions left no other reasonable conclusion) will elect black people with whom they are familiar as long as those black people are not too black. As one county businessman describes James Fields, "If James wasn't black, you'd think he was white." As Dawidoff describes it, this seems to be something that Mr. Fields understands and has capitalized upon. Dawidoff writes, "Fields understood that to win he especially would need to neutralize resentments, fears, and prejudices by blurring his color into the background where it was subordinate to his character." Indeed, I would argue that this is true of all successful black politicians, including the President, in a majority-white electorate. It is also true of successful black professionals who work in majority-white environments.

But what is the cost of this double consciousness (to borrow from DuBois) or the cost of maintaining two identities? Dawidoff observes that "for all his efforts in Cullman, Fields is still not one of them." Fields's race and his interactions with his white electorate weighed heavily on him. Dawidoff writes:
In his attempts to make white people see beyond his [Field's] race, every day he is making many of the same calculations black men were making a hundred years ago in the South, rising above the men who still call him "boy," the elderly women who return his greeting by staring hard a the floor. "If you're gonna survive in this world, you chew the cheese" he say. "I learned a long time ago, a lot of stuff you have to sit there and take and hope something good'll come of it. Smile and grin whey they make a racial joke or say, 'You know them niggers,' and laugh."
In one of the more poignant paragraphs, Dawidoff relates:
During another conversation he [Field] said, "I find myself, a lot of times, I'm living what other people perceive me to be. That is what makes my life so miserable. I can't get away. I can't really be who I am." Shifting between Cullman, Colony, and Irondale means, he says, "I have to live, like, two frigging lives."
If this is the future, it looks a lot like the past.

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