The present landscape of elected Black national leaders is interesting. Why? There is a tremendous bit of irony here. The political positions of many Black leaders have little to do with “racial” identity – and more to do with regional politics and the calculus of attracting votes from critical blocs of white voters. Black leaders who aspire to statewide or national political office must embrace political positions that are consistent with a plurality of white voters. It should be that way in a representative democracy in which the majority of the electorate is white. That is hardly a problem. But…
The perception among whites has been that Black political leaders have a hidden agenda. The belief is that Black political leaders are really more liberal than they profess to be during a campaign; that elected black officials will make “intra-racial” concessions to Black groups to the detriment of other interest groups; and, that these Black leaders may or may not be responsive to white concerns with respect to law and order. Of course, these same sentiments were expressed by the Afrikaaner population in South Africa and other collectives in Kenya, and the Caribbean. In some cases, those concerns have been well founded. In other cases, the concerns have not had much merit. In any case, the question of the extent to which a Black leader can be perceived as an individual merits further consideration.
Ultimately, however, black politicians are unable to deliver the spoils of state and national offices to Black communities, generally. There have been exceptions, but as a general rule, politicians are only able to support those in the best position to enrich themselves prior to the election. The case of Harold Washington is probably a singular case in the annals of US politics. As mayor of Chicago, he wielded a considerable degree of influence within Illinois and nationally. It had much to do with the depth of the embrace between him and the black community – but also to Washington’s popularity with a small, but critical mass, of non-blacks. Former New York mayor David Dinkins enjoyed no such plurality among black folk in New York. People were always lukewarm to the quiet, but dignified, man from the Uptown Democratic Club. He was probably the darkest complected member of the club (think Denny Farrell, Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, Adam Powell, etc.) He may have also been the most bland. In any event, it was then-Governor Mario Cuomo who ushered in the Giuliani era by ensuring a referendum on succession for Staten Island (a borough of mostly white ethnics with limited interest in NYC politics) would be placed on the ballot. The high voter turnout from Staten Island changed the early calculus on consideration for Dinkins.
He spent much of the early campaign time making overtures to white groups and electing to assume a passionate voter turnout among blacks. It didn’t happen. Giuliani became mayor – and the rest is history.