Column: Candidates are throwing template for black success in politics out the window

President Barack Obama salutes at Andrews Air Force Base before departing for Columbus, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Pete Souza/the White House.

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

Things got interesting for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at a recent town-hall-style campaign event last week in Hemingway, South Carolina — a Southern democratic enclave. An attendee named Meg Oliver asked the California Democrat a question.

“I’m embarrassed to say that my father was most likely in the [Ku Klux Klan] and I grew up in the South as a daughter of the South,” Oliver said. “I’m embarrassed at what I see with a lot of Southerners and a lot of members of our Congress and the blatant racism of the Steve Kings and the Cindy Hyde-Smiths.”

Fadel Allassan. Photo by Julie Tripp
Fadel Allassan

She continued: “I’m wondering what we as white people who don’t believe in that, and don’t support that — what can we do to help offset the obvious flash points of racial divides in this country?”

After a round of applause, Harris said the key to moving forward on race was to be honest about the country’s past and present racial fault lines.

“We do have to speak the truths like you spoke a very difficult truth,” Harris responded. “For too long in our country we have not had these honest discussions about race.”

Many found the exchange to be extraordinary. For one, it’s remarkable to hear a white person admit to their own family’s racist background — much less that of their father. The same was true for politicians until very recently.

But the exchange also highlights how the national landscape has changed when it comes to race, which was once deemed too vexed of a subject for the world of politics.

For politicians, particularly black ones, the issue once deemed too toxic to touch the campaign trail is now imperative. These days, being able to demonstrate dexterity when talking about race-related issues is even viewed as an asset.

No one knows this better than Harris herself. Christopher Cadelago at POLITICO reports the senator’s staff is closely monitoring public opinion as it relates to questions about her “blackness.” Three of her campaign advisers told Cadelago Harris’ extended interviews with prominent black hosts like Charlamagne tha God from the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club” are calculated — aimed at directly tackling awkward memes and questions  about whether Harris is “black enough” before they snowball.

Cory Booker, another black democratic hopeful for the nomination, seems to have subscribed to a similar doctrine. Not too long ago, the New Jersey senator was a guest on Charlemagne’s program and discussed his love interests, revealing he had a “boo.”

“Sixty percent of the show’s daily audience is African-American,” Maxwell Tani and Gideon Resnick write in The Daily Beast, “and the show’s hosts feel that their background allows them to ask questions that many mainstream political journalists and cable-news hosts couldn’t ask — or wouldn’t ever think to.”

The willingness to talk about race, among all candidates, is a clear departure from what’s been the norm for decades. For a long time, black politicians rose through the ranks of elected office by nullifying race as an issue.

Former President Barack Obama, the most prominent black politician in American history, largely avoided confronting the race question for much of his political career.

Obama’s stock skyrocketed when he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as a state senator. But the speech itself was a monument to the moderate, “come together” politics of the past. He painted the chasms in American politics and culture as artificial, rather than appreciable.

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” Obama said before a roaring crowd. “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

Things have certainly changed, and it’s hard to pinpoint the catalyst for this cultural shift. Like with so many phenomena, it’s likely there are multiple reasons. The thinking of Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate, could help explain the change in behavior. The South Carolinian spent most of his career trying to avoid being defined by his race. But he has reshaped his image in recent years.

“I’ve been in public life for 25 years almost, and I’ve been reluctant [to speak about race] for about 22 of those 25 years,” Scott told The Wall Street Journal in February. “Trayvon Martin and other issues just kept populating the public forum, and at some point, I decided that I was doing the nation a disservice by not speaking out clearly when necessary.”

Scott, like other politicians, may be finding that moderation is outdated in today’s contentious cultural atmosphere. Movements like Black Lives Matter, #OscarsSoWhite and the kneeling of athletes during the national anthem at games have made overtones of discussions that were previously undertones.

Meg Oliver’s question in South Carolina — and her forthright admission of her father’s racism — is a sign that Americans are moving closer to having the difficult conversations they have so long evaded. It appears their elected leaders have received the message and are acting accordingly.

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