PHILADELPHIA – — When Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina announced she would name Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate, it seemed like another milestone for African-Americans.
Scott will complete the term of Sen. Jim DeMint, who is leaving to run Heritage Foundation. He will be the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction; the first black Republican senator since 1979, when Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts retired; and, indeed, only the seventh African-American ever to serve in the chamber.
But this “first black” rhetoric tends to interpret African-American political successes – including that of President Obama – as part of a morality play that dramatizes “how far we have come.” It obscures the fact that modern black Republicans have been more tokens than signs of progress.
The cheerleading over racial symbolism plays to the Republicans’ desperate need to woo (or at least appear to woo) minority voters, who favored Obama over Mitt Romney by huge margins. Haley – a daughter of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India – is the first female and first nonwhite governor of South Carolina, the home to white supremacists like John C. Calhoun, Preston S. Brooks, Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond.
Scott’s background is also striking: Raised by a poor single mother, he defeated, with tea party backing, two white men in a 2010 Republican primary: a son of Thurmond and a son of former Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. But his politics, like those of the archconservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, are utterly at odds with the preferences of most black Americans. Scott has been anti-tax, anti-union and anti-abortion.
Even if the Republicans managed to distance themselves from the thinly veiled racism of the tea party adherents who have moved the party rightward, they wouldn’t do much better among black voters than they do now. I suspect that appointments like Scott’s are directed less at blacks – whom they know they aren’t going to win in any significant numbers – than at whites who are inclined to vote Republican but don’t want to have to think of themselves, or be thought of by others, as racist.
Just as white Southern Democrats once used cynical manipulations – poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests – to get around the 15th Amendment, so modern-day Republicans have deployed blacks to undermine black interests, as when President Ronald Reagan named Samuel R. Pierce Jr. to weaken the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Clarence M. Pendleton to enfeeble the Commission on Civil Rights and Clarence Thomas to enervate the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Over history, racial alignments have shifted radically. The Democrats were the party of white supremacy until the New Deal. The Republicans were a party of relative support for civil rights until the 1950s. The tables have turned. No Republican presidential nominee has won the black vote since 1936. All four black Republicans who have served in the House since the Reagan era were elected from majority-white districts.
There is little that connects these men to mainstream black politics or to the country’s first two black senators, Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, who were elected (by the Mississippi State Senate) during Reconstruction, that extraordinary and brief moment of African-American political empowerment after the Civil War destroyed chattel slavery.
Not until the Great Migration of blacks to Northern cities between the two world wars were they again capable of electing candidates of their choosing. In the South, blacks began to register to vote in substantial numbers only after the Supreme Court overturned the “white primary,” which had allowed Southern Democrats to exclude blacks by defining the party as a private club, in 1944. The Voting Rights Act in 1965 turned the trickle of black politicians into a flood.
But the increase in representation has been a mixed blessing. Redistricting and gerrymandering have produced “safe” seats for black politicians across the South but have also concentrated black votes in black districts, giving white Republicans a lock. (As The New York Times reported, House Democratic candidates won about 50.5 percent of the national vote last month but only 46 percent of the seats; in North Carolina, they won 51 percent of the vote but only 27 percent of the seats.)
For Scott, the true test will come in 2014, when he will presumably run for a full six-year term. As Obama has shown, the question is not whether whites are willing to vote for a black candidate, but whether black candidates can put together winning coalitions (no matter their racial makeup) and around what policies. I suspect black South Carolinians will not be drawn to Scott.
The trope of the black conservative has retained a man-bites-dog newsworthiness that is long past its shelf life. Cliches about fallen barriers are increasingly meaningless; symbols don’t make for coherent policies. Republicans will not gain significant black support unless they take policy positions that advance black interests. No number of Tim Scotts – or other cynical tokens – will change that.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Adolph L. Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.