Race is powerful. And we are seeing the power of race utilized in unique ways in this Alabama election. Let’s examine the age old saga of race expressed in these new ways and new contexts.
Race is too often used by persons of one race against persons of another race. It is a well known practice with a long history. But in this election, there are new twists in a context we rarely see.
Some whites use race to consolidate white voters during elections and some blacks use race to consolidate black voters. But this time, there is a new context: a technically well qualified black person is running for Governor of Alabama in the Democratic Primary against a technically well qualified white. There is also a new twist: a black person is attempting to use the race of other blacks to consolidate whites voters behind him. It’s a new context with new twists in an age old saga.
The black candidate is Congressman Artur Davis. In a press release last month, he denounced the three largest black political organizations: Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC); Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC); and Jefferson County Citizens Coalition (JCCC). There are some resentments against the perceived power of these organizations. The symbolic language used to convey this attitude is “block voting.” Artur was saying in so many words, “I don’t want the black block vote.” It was a new twist.
But Artur Davis did not stop with these organizations. He also attacked three of the state’s highest profile black leaders: Dr. Richard Arrington, former mayor of Birmingham; Dr. Joe Reed, a key official with the Alabama Education Association, the Democratic Party, and the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC); and me, Hank Sanders, a state senator, chair of the Senate Education Budget Committee, and former emeritus official in Alabama New South Coalition.
Even before these twists, Artur Davis utilized race by voting against President Barack Obama on the hard fought, year long struggle for health care reform. He was very high profile about his vote apparently as a signal to some whites that he would stand against his people and even his president. Race is so powerful.
Before he stood against President Barack Obama, he stood against Dr. Joe Reed, publicly attacking him on several occasions. Over a year ago, he used the race of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had become a racial symbol to send a signal. Rev. Wright was scheduled to speak in Selma at the old fashion mass meeting on Thursday night to open the Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. Congressman Davis was scheduled to introduce U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder that Sunday. Yet, he issued a press release objecting to Rev. Wright speaking at a civil rights event. It was another twist in this age old saga of race.
Then, Artur Davis gave the race issue another twist: he accused Ron Sparks, his white gubernatorial opponent, of playing the race card. But he was the one playing the race card time and time again in his pursuit of higher office.
The challenge of using race against persons of the same race is a more delicate endeavor than using race against people of another race. The idea is to attack symbols (i.e. black leaders and black organizations) in a way that send messages to white voters without alienating black voters. It’s easy to miscalculate and Artur Davis miscalculated.
Congressman Davis voted against the Health Care Reform Bill the first time without much backlash. But this time things were different. When President Obama and Congressional leaders were struggling mightily for every vote to pass the Health Care Reform Package, most African Americans and many whites were intensely supportive. As we sat around the television pulling for passage of the Health Care Reform Package to pass, we were also pulling for President Obama because his presidency seemed to be on the line.
When Artur Davis became the only African American Congressman out of some 43 to vote against the Health Care Reform Package, it was widely perceived as voting against President Obama. The backlash was immediate and powerful. It was a big miscalculation that has profound implications. The backlash was immediate and powerful. Race is so powerful even with new twists and in new contexts.
Artur Davis then did another twist, a full 360 in the air. His presentations shifted dramatically. He became very “black” in his campaign approach when he talked to black audiences. His advertising sent a strong message of standing “black.” He moved to salvage the black vote. Sometimes racial twists become contortions with their own ramifications. Race is so powerful.
EPILOGUE - Sometimes we know a special truth in our soul. But it is so foreign to our experience we struggle with ourselves about it. Then we struggle to put it in words that are easily understandable. That’s how I was with this week’s Sketches.
About the author: Hank Sanders is a long-time contributor to the Capital City Free Press and represents the people of the 23rd Senate District in the Alabama Legislature.