President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Lewis in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Cover Image © Carolyn Kaster

My Black Perspective #12: Politics

Black People have an “interesting” history with politics in the United States, and even now – I’m always a little torn between the fine line of Political Action vs. Social Justice/Reform issues (because I do think they are different — interlocked, but different). I figure that’s worth exploring, but not without a few points of context.

Yes, we’ve had Barack Obama. But, based on the numbers I’m about to show you – We could do much better in terms of Black Representation in the highest seats of authority for law making in this country. To help focus this post a bit, I will specifically be looking at the House, Senate, and U.S. Presidency.

Congress, The Emancipation Proclamation, and Mass Black Party-Switching

A few key things…

  • The U.S. Congress (consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate) first met in 1789.
  • When people refer to the “sitting of a congress”, they are talking about the times between elections that those two entities are officially formed and governing.
  • We are currently on the 117th Congress.
  • As I called out in my post about Black History, the Emancipation Proclamation happened in 1863.

The first Black member of Congress was a Republican Senator named Hiram Revels. He sat on the 41st Congress as a representative for the state of Mississippi from 1870 – 71.

It’s no secret, but it may still surprise some that Black People and the Republican Party used to be much closer than they are now. The Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves… Abraham Lincoln (he was a Republican).

Commemorative print of Abraham Lincoln with the text of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In fact, all early Black Representatives came from the Republican Party – and then some switcheroo happened somewhere in history.

I bring up the Emancipation Proclamation because Mr. Revels served in the Senate shortly after its creation. I can’t speak for the old Republican Party, I’m not a History or Political Science major – but they stuck to their guns back in the day and pumped out Black representation in the highest levels of government. From the time of Mr. Revels, Republicans had Black Representatives in the 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Congress (as either a member of the House or Senate) – but then things started getting a little choppy.

When it came to the House, Republicans had a Black Representative in a few of the gatherings of congress from the 48th – 55th seating (specifically the 48th, 51st, 53rd, and 55th), and then the 71st, and then things went silent for the party until the later sessions. It gets really convoluted to explain, so here’s a picture I’ve put together from this data set. In fact – most of my commentary related to numbers and timing are based on that data set.

A table showing the timing and number of Black Politicians and their service body and political party.

You can kind of see when things started shifting from Red (Republican) to Blue (Democrat) in terms of Black People serving in Congress.

And you can also see that when it comes to volumes of Representatives – Democrats outnumber Republicans, with there being 138 Black People serving for Democrats (H: 131 + S: 7) compared to Republicans – the party who started it all for Black People in Congress – only having 34 (H: 30 + S: 4). Please Note: Some people served in both the House and Senate — I’m just counting when they landed in either group once.

What’s the significance of this? What was up with the 103rd Congress and its very high number of Black Democrat Representatives? Who holds the title for the most appearances in Congress? Where does Barack Obama fit into all of this?

I work in data for my day job, so as you can imagine – seeing things this way left me with TONS of questions. I will try to address a few of them directly, but – because of time – I can’t solve all of the mysteries here (also, Excel totally crashed on me earlier as I was working on this and I lost about half an hour’s worth of work and just didn’t have time to double back on everything before work 😔 – I actually finished this over my lunch break today).

A Few Titans of Black Politics

There are a few key figures that I’d like to point out by name because of the sheer impressive numbers they put up:

  • John Conyers Jr. (D) for MI sat as a House Representative for 27 congressional terms! He was there from 1965 – 2019; the 89th – 115th seating of Congress.
  • Charles B. Rangel (D) for NY. Sat as a House Representative for 23 congressional terms – he was around from the 92nd – 114th seating of Congress (1971 – 2017).
  • John Lewis (D) for GA was a Civil Rights icon who was around as a House Representative for 17 congressional terms from 1987 – 2020 when he passed. He sat for the 100th – 116th seating of Congress.
  • Maxine Waters (D) for CA has been a House Representative for 16 congressional terms. She first appeared in 1991 (the 102nd seating of Congress) and is still there working now.

There are others with high numbers, but to list them all beyond Maxine would kill my time. When you take into account that the typical Black Democrat House Representative only serves a median of 6 congressional terms – those numbers are impressive (the average Black Republican House Representative serves about 2 terms as their median). That said, I’ll be sure to attach the Excel doc I’m using to crunch these numbers for the number nerds out there.

(I’ll let you guess their political party affiliation.)

An historical art print of Black Politicians by Wishum Gregory.

And the last person I’ll point out is Barack Obama, but I won’t linger here too long. The thing that amazes me about him is that he won the first and only Black U.S. Presidency after only serving 2 terms in the U.S. Senate. Considering the number of failed attempts by Black People to run for anything near the presidency, the fact that he pulled it off with his level of experience is just kind of shocking.

I qualify all of this with the fact that there have been political appointments everywhere for Black People (for both major political parties), and many are prevalent at lower levels of government — but again, the scope of this post is the U.S. Congress and Presidency.

Black People & Voting

The relationship that Black People have with voting is… “touch and go” at best. A recent poll from FiveThirtyEight found that about 30% of Black People rarely or never vote. I think it all depends on how vested we feel in what’s happening. I’ve seen numbers around that showed a surge in Black voting when Barack Obama was running for office. But I also personally know a number of people who just don’t vote because they feel like their vote doesn’t count, and a number of famous Black celebrities have admitted to their lack of voting participation.

Like… a lot of famous Black names have gone on the record as either voting every now and then, or not at all: Snoop Dogg, Colin Kaepernick didn’t vote the year that Trump won, Kendrick Lamar, Shaquille O’Neal, Diddy… I’m sure there are others, but those are the few I could think of off the top of my head.

To hear my friends who don’t vote tell their side, it comes down to an overwhelming sense that “nothing will change for Black People regardless of who wins, so why cast a vote in the first place?” And while I don’t condemn their decision (they have a right to it) as MANY opinion pieces have done, I don’t agree with it either. Not entirely, anyway.

In honest conversation (as in with no filter whatsoever), I totally see their point. Facts: There have been 10,421 Members who served solely in the House, and 131 of them have been Black (~1.3%). There have been 1,314 Members who served solely in the Senate, and 11 of them have been Black(~o.8%).

While that is better than many minorities have faired throughout U.S. History, to say that our government has historically represented the interests of Black People (who now constitute ~13.4% of the population of the United States according to the U.S. Census) is laughable.

But…

I would also say that it’s not all bad.

A Black man (unseen) casting a vote, and a Black woman is behind him in the background out of focus.

I would argue that the reason we should vote (aside from the price paid by prior generations so that we COULD vote) is to increase Black Representation (male, female, and otherwise) within Congress so that a more diverse opinion can be taken into consideration when laws are passed that impact Black People on many levels (business, homeownership, voting practices, incarceration, hell – even farming).

I understand being discouraged, and I very famously own the fact that I quit things (I will stop things that make me unhappy in a heartbeat), but I try to discern what’s worth fighting for vs. what’s not. And this? THIS is worth fighting for and keeping your spirits up through adversity and setbacks.

There will be moments of infamy, but there will also be moments of extreme pride.

But… this brings me to my last point (and one of the first things raised in this post).

The Fine Line Between Political Action vs. Social Justice/Reform

This all takes me back to the original thing that I’m torn with, and I think a lot of Black People are. We, as a people, are still waiting on elements of Social Justice/Reform in this country. We understand that politics plays an extremely important role in getting some of that to progress and move forward (because many people wouldn’t change the status quo unless they’re legally forced to do so). But I’d argue (personal opinion) that they’re not exactly the same.

I hold the belief that some things just shouldn’t need to become political issues.

Case in point – I don’t consider Black Lives Matter (addressing the elephant in the room) a political issue because it SHOULDN’T be political to say that statement. And no, All Lives don’t matter until you can comfortably say, “Black Lives Matter.” The argument between the two sides is a moot point if the larger bucket can’t include the smaller one — know what I mean?

If that triggered you, I apologize for hijacking your amygdala – and just want to break down these very basic points.

  • Black Lives are within All lives.
  • The statement “Black Lives Matter” means just that. It’s not saying they matter “more” or that they are the “only thing that matters.”
  • If anything, there’s an implied, “as much as Non-Black Lives,” at the end of that statement.
  • If you cannot state and ride in agreement with the fact that, “Black Lives Matter,” then – by definition – you are saying that, “All lives do not matter.”
  • No one who says, “Black Lives Matter,” is saying that, “All lives do not matter.” They would just like “Black Lives” to be included in the running social definition of “All Lives”.

Bringing this back, though – these are the fundamental things that Black People would like recognized socially. Things that we’ve always wanted in this country. Basic freaking EQUAL treatment and opportunities when compared to our Non-Black counterparts. And if you think that we are treated equally, please stop and think about the events of the last year or so.

Black People have been shot dead while sleeping, pulled over for a ticket, jogging, being a child, walking home, etc. And NO ONE has been held accountable for those actions. Those gathering on behalf of Black Lives Matter were met with militaristic force and definitely treated as social disruptors.

Meanwhile, we have the current Presidential Impeachment. If you look at how the actual insurrectionists from January 6, 2021, were, and continue to be, treated in light of their vicious attack on the Capitol – it paints a story that’s very old in American history for Black People. If that audience were black, the response would’ve been deadlier and much more severe. I know people who served prison sentences for lighter stuff than literally trying to upend our system of government and harm political representatives, but the guy who kind of led the charge is probably about to get off scot-free.

A less extreme example – again, “Black People have been shot dead while sleeping, pulled over for a ticket, jogging, being a child, walking home, etc.” Dylann Roof (a white male) literally murdered 9 Black People in a church and was reportedly brought a meal from Burger King shortly thereafter

Again, “Black People have been shot dead while sleeping, pulled over for a ticket, jogging, being a child, walking home, etc.” [intentionally mentioned again] Kyle Rittenhouse (a white male) was shown on camera shooting protestors and was let out on bail (he’s violated that bond – and has faced no legal consequences yet)…

I am not upset as I write these things, but I’m getting there – so I’ll stop.

What I’m trying to illustrate is that Black People would anecdotally never get that same treatment. Yes, Dylann Roof will be brought to justice (as of this writing he’s still alive), and the future will tell what happens to Kyle – but they actually made it to court. Black People don’t make it that far under far less severe situations.

Something feels wrong about that.

And while it shouldn’t be a political issue (it clearly feels like a Social Justice/Reform), things like this often HAVE TO become Political Action issues for Black People because we’re ultimately left no realistically viable recourse in the system as it is currently fashioned. Yes, we have “equal standing under the law,” but… really… do we have EQUAL standing under the law? Have we ever in this country?

Group of activists with holding hands protesting in the city.  Black woman and White woman holding hands.

I think this is at the crux of what turns Black People off voting. I can understand that.

We may not all agree on voting vs. “not voting” (we’re not a monolith), but we’re bound by the same history of being denied the right to vote. We are equally impacted by the laws set out by politicians who, historically, don’t really reflect us. We hold some very strong opinions related to Political vs. Social Justice issues. There is belonging to be found in those commonalities (and differences) for Black Americans.

I remain hopeful that if more Black People voted and got involved in U.S. Politics, at every level, more factors in our experiences in this country would change for the better.

That’s it. Those are my thoughts on Black People and Politics in the year 2021.

Peace, and thanks for reading.

 

The soundtrack for this post provided by…

Image Credits:
– Cover Image © Carolyn Kaster (AP)
– Body Image 1 © Everett Collection (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 2 © Johnnie Weathersby III
– Body Image 3 © Wishum Gregory
– Body Image 4 © Halfpoint (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 5 © Jacob Lund (Shutterstock)

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