Democrats and Closet Prejudice

There have been only two African Americans elected to state Governorships and only a handful of African Americans elected to the U.S. Senate in the entire history of the United States. Serving as a Governor or Senator has been the traditional stepping-stone to a bid for the Presidency.

Obama’s election to the Senate (he was only the third popularly elected black Senator) and then the White House required a particularly exceptional set of circumstances. For one, he became President at the height of a major financial crisis in which a million Americans were losing their jobs every month.

Before Obama, Democrats over the previous half-century had succeeded in electing only white males from the old Confederacy as President: from the promulgation of the Civil Rights Act to the election of Obama, every U.S. President had been a white male Republican or a white male Southern Democrat (Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton).

Democrats cannot just blame the chauvinism of the broader electorate for this parlous state of affairs. Notwithstanding the election of Obama, the Democratic party has a serious internal prejudice problem and needs to confront it or risk perpetuating the exclusion of minorities — as well as women — from political power.

Let’s look at the facts: approximately 90% of the 24 Democratic Governors and of the 47 Democratic or Democratic-aligned Senators are white, despite the fact that minorities represent about 45% of the party’s voters.

More broadly, minorities and women together represent about 80% of the Democratic party’s voters but only 25% of its elected Governors and 38% of its elected members to the Senate.

Until Democrats start embracing both minorities and women as elected and appointed officials at every level of government, the dominance of the party by a small group — the same group that dominates the Republican party — will continue.

Part of the problem is that minorities and women have internalized the same unconscious biases about what authority looks like as those who feel primed or entitled to wield it. The party should accordingly set explicit targets for minority and women representation in its platform and educate the electorate about the extent to which “electability,” an all-but explicit cover for closet prejudice, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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