Until Scott actually campaigns for the office and is elected, any definitive proclamation regarding his recent good fortunate should be tempered
Recently Jim DeMint of South Carolina retired from the United States Senate, prompting Republican Governor Nikki Haley to appoint Congressman Tim Scott to serve out the remainder of DeMint’s term. News of the governor’s appointment rippled through the corridors of Washington, and created buzz among Black politics scholars. Why? First, Scott is African American. Since Reconstruction, only four African Americans have served in the U.S. Senate; and three of them hailed from Illinois: Barack Obama, Carol Moseley Braun and Roland Burris (albeit briefly in Burris’ case).
The first African American to occupy a seat in the United States Senate in the modern era was Edward W. Brooke III from Massachusetts. A Republican and former state Attorney General, Brooke was elected in 1966, serving until 1979. Second, much has been made of the fact that Scott’s appointment comes in the South, historically the most racially charged region of the country. Although, given the level of vitriol witnessed in the wake of Obama’s election to the White House in 2008, one could argue that one or two other regions have since caught up with the South where racial animus is concerned. And third, Scott is a Republican. By and large, African Americans view Black Republicans skeptically for a number of obvious and perhaps not so obvious reasons. Moreover, Blacks who campaign as Republicans face formidable odds for these reasons: Black voters typically steer clear of Republican candidates (regardless of the candidate’s race), while white voters typically withhold support from or flat-out vote against Black candidates (regardless of party affiliation).
The appointment of Scott to a U.S. Senate seat in the South is indeed historic, but is it a big deal or is it much ado about nothing? Like Burris before him, Scott was appointed whereas Brooke, Braun and Obama were elected by the voters. Scott’s real test comes next year when he will run for the seat to which he was appointed. High Profile Statewide offices (those being the U.S. Senate and Governor) have always proven elusive for African American candidates. There have only been three Black governors in the modern era - Doug Wilder of Virginia, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and David Paterson of New York, the former Lt. Governor, who was elevated to the governorship when a scandal forced then governor Eliot Spitzer to resign.
Several factors account for the dismal numbers of African American High Profile Statewide Office holders. Contrary to popular belief, the dearth of Blacks in those positions is not because so few run. Over the years many highly qualified Black candidates have run for the U.S. Senate and for governor and failed. Some scholars including me have argued that the primary reason is because there is a segment of the white electorate that simply will not vote for a Black gubernatorial or Senatorial aspirant, no matter the candidate’s credentials.
A study of the historic Wilder election revealed that while Wilder garnered 41 percent of the white vote, there remained a sector of the white electorate that refused to support Wilder, presumably because of his race. Some voters were unabashed about their opposition to Wilder saying things like “we don’t need a Black governor at this time” and “if he’s elected he’ll make a whole bunch of Black appointments . . . after all he has all those kin folk to look after”. These voters, however, had no problem supporting Wilder’s two running mates, despite the fact that all three ran as a slate and campaigned on the politically advantageous side of the key and not so key issues.
Specifically, Wilder’s running mates tallied more vote support than he, including Don Beyer, a political novice and Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor whose claim to fame was being the proud owner of a Volvo dealership. Beyer was so nondescript that at one point during the campaign former Democratic Governor Chuck Robb forgot Beyer’s name while talking to a reporter. By the way, Wilder’s running mates were white. Because split ticket voting is permitted in Virginia, researchers were able to ascertain that some white Democrats were significantly more supportive of Wilder’s running mates than they were of him. Despite the presence of racial hostility within the electorate, Wilder triumphed (although by less than one percentage point of the total vote), becoming the first Black elected governor in U.S history.
Wilder’s election was historic and a big deal because he was elected by the voters. Brooke’s election to the Senate was a huge deal, because he was elected in a state where the Black population comprised just three percent. The elections of Braun and Patrick were noteworthy, because they were, again, elected. Scott, on the other hand was appointed. Until Scott actually campaigns for the office (in 2014) to which he was appointed and is elected by the voters of the Palmetto State any definitive proclamation regarding his recent good fortunate should be tempered.
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* Dr. Judson L. Jeffries is Professor of African American and African Studies as well as Director of the African American and African Studies Community Extension Center at The Ohio State University.