Our Only Black Senator Steps Down

Bob Sackamento at mydd.com (HT/John) has a good overview titled, “Today, the US Senate lost another rising star,” on Senator Obama resigning his Senate seat, with an interesting biographical take on the five (and only five!) African Americans who have ever served in that political body, probably the most powerful legislative body on earth.

The first two black senators served during the Reconstruction era (see some history here and here), when this country’s whites had the chance to abandon this country’s racist foundation but did not do so. They were Hiram Rhodes Revels (1870-1871) and Blanche Bruce (1875-1881), both Republicans from, guess where, Mississippi. The only other black senators have been the Republican Edward Brooke (1967-1979), from Massachusetts and the Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (1993-1999), from Illinois. Braun is the only black woman to ever serve in that relatively exclusive, mostly white men’s, rather undemocratic political club called the U.S. Senate.

Now that Senator Obama is stepping down, there are no black senators in that body. This is yet another signal of how systemic racism still is in the United States. There is speculation that the governor of Illinois may appoint a black person as the new senator in Obama’s place. It is time, in my view, for another African American woman.


  1. JDF

    Another interesting caveat regarding the paltry number of blacks in the U.S. Congress is the fact that NOT A SINGLE REPUBLICAN EXISTS in either the House or Senate (J.C. Watts represented OK’s 4th District but left in 2003, later complaining how his party members “don’t show up” for black voters). A good point to bring up in arguments with Rep. friends of yours who get upset when you call it the “white party.”

  2. Thanks Joe for pointing out this obvious disparity that the mainstream media never seem to notice. The WSJ “myth of racism” editorial you recently referenced, failed to mention the senate in their (not so) exhaustive list of institutions that have had a black head. While it wouldn’t address the long-term and systemic racism inherent in this body, might governors of other states whose sitting senators could be tapped for cabinet positions (NY, MA?) appoint black replacements?

  3. This is off-topic, but someone should write an entry about the “The Color Of Medicine” article on nytimes.com (health section). The comment stream is especially revealing, many of the comments suggesting black doctors are underqualified because of affirmative action and that whites’ apprehension of using black doctors is “rational”.

  4. Melissa

    GDAWG: As a white women, I would say that some people do think women are less qualified. I’m saying this a woman with a computer and engineering degree who has had people request men when she worked in tech support because they didn’t think I knew anything…because I was a woman. People underestimate my abilities because of my sex. I’m not thought of for certain jobs at work because I’m not a male and I’m not a member of the “boys club”.

  5. GDAWG

    Okay. But does that mean you are less qualified? Or, does that mean or translate into that they’re hating on you because you are a women, solely?
    My point is that for Blacks, regardless of their background, just because they are black, they are perceived to be less qualified, generally, Even president-elect BO has to deal with this perception among whites, for the most part. Yet strange as it seems, it’s been whites, for the most, who has benefitted the most from government set-aside programs etc,.

  6. GDAWG

    Actually, the more I think about it, it seems to me, that the “creation of the American Black” has had a therapeutic aspect to it in terms of the sustenance of the “white ego,” when you think about it. That is, in order to sustain the American version of its racial hieararchy, with its inherent exploitation and institutional marginalization of ‘da Blacks, BO’s recent feat as the newly elected POTUS, has shaken to the core these crazy beliefs of plenty of marginally existing white folks. When you examine all of the racial hostitilites since the election, its clear that this has been a paradigm shift in their perception of Blacks for some folk.
    Dis-orienting, of sorts.

  7. Melissa

    No, I’m not less qualified, but I am perceived to be less qualified because I’m a woman. (Not sure how you are seperating that from being hated on because of being a woman.) I know it’s not the same thing as what Blacks experience, but I was trying to answer your question. It seems like the comments on that article were that people thought Black doctors were less qualified because of affirmative action, not because of any actual evidence they used or benefited from affirmative action nor what what those doctors qualifications were.
    I realize that as a woman with degrees in fields that don’t have many women in them, I benefit but it does make me nervous that people won’t feel I’m qualified and that I was merely hired to fill a quota.
    I’m assuming you are male and haven’t had the experience where when you ever use power tools or something sharp you are told “Don’t hurt yourself.” If you worked in tech support and answered the phone, people won’t assume you are the secretary/receptionist. There are area that woman are thought of being less qualified in because of their gender. (Larry Summers anyone?)
    I’m not sure of your race but if you are Black, I know that I don’t know what it’s like to be judged on race. Sexism still exists, racism still exists. Unless you are a White male, people start making negative assumptions about your abilities based on the way you look. Racism is more pervasive than sexism, though.

  8. adia

    Melissa, I see your point–that people do in fact assume white women are less qualified for certain posts–though this is likely because of their gender rather than their race. However, I disagree with your claim that racism is more pervasive than sexism. As Jessie and I have argued on several posts here, this type of binary either-or thinking actually obscures more than it reveals. If racism is more pervasive than sexism, then how do we explain the experiences of Latinas, Black women, Asian American women? Is racism a “bigger” factor than sexism in contributing to their labor market disadvantage, poorer access to health care, etc? Both factors–racism and sexism–are operating simultaneously to shape their experiences. Another way to think of it is that racism is always gendered and sexism is always racialized. So when people assume that you, as a white woman, are the secretary, this is not just because you are a woman but because you are a *white* woman. (Were you Latina, people might rely on racist stereotypes and assume that you’re the janitor.) I think it’s extremely important to avoid thinking of these -isms as “separate silos” (to borrow a phrase from Jessie), because when we do so we risk ranking oppressions when they are all interrelated and that much more damaging.

  9. Melissa

    I said racism is a bigger issue because I think it have a bigger, first influence on people’s opinions, then the gender is second. I agree they are all interrelated. Maybe I said it because where I work and live I see more overt racism, mainly directed towards Black men, than I see sexism or a combination of racism and sexism. I know my personal experiences of being a woman, but when I talk to my Black friends and they actually share things they experience, they talk about what happens to them because of their skin color, not because of being a woman.

  10. Joe Author

    Melissa, thanks for generating good argument here. The interview studies of Black women show the same pattern you suggest, with most accenting the racial discrimination they face more than the gender discrimination they face. As Adia points out, they do face both and both systems of oppression hurt great numbers of people. There is no useful political point to ranking one with the other. Both need complete eradication.

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