Sadly for Republicans, the Southern Strategy, that devilishly effective electoral strategy leveraging white resentment of black enfranchisement, is no more. The 2008 election proved that those states below the Mason-Dixon Line are not the kingmakers they once were. But identity politics are still with us. Bobby Rush is making sure of that.
Rush, an eight-term congressman representing the First Congressional District in Illinois, a grotesquely gerrymandered creation, made an unexpected appearance at last week’s press conference held by the embattled Illinois governor. It was the stuff of fiction. Like the Reverend Reginald Bacon, the Al Sharpton-esque racial demagogue in Tom Wolfe’s classic, Bonfire of the Vanities, Rush, smelling blood, foolishly rushed in.
“My prayers have been answered, because I prayed fervidly that the governor would…appoint an African American,” Rush said, referring to the decision by Rod Blagojevich, despite his pending indictment for conspiring to peddle President-elect Obama’s Senate seat, to nominate former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to fill the vacancy. Rush then threw down the guantlet: “Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the US Senate. I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer. I don’t think that anyone—any US senator who’s sitting in the Senate right now—wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the US Senate.”
Rush’s effrontery is no surprise. The founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, Rush, according to one of his political opponents, represents “a politics that is rooted in the past, a reactive politics that isn’t good at coming up with concrete solutions.” The words are Obama’s, said during his ill-fated attempt to oust Rush in 2000. Rush, who crushed Obama by a two-to-one margin, responded in kind, questioning the racial loyalties of the rising state senator from predominantly white Hyde Park. “[Obama] went to Harvard and became an educated fool,” he told a newspaper, as if a prestigious degree and being black were antithetical. “We’re not impressed with these folks with these Eastern elite degrees.”
Rush’s bogus logic for filling a seat held by a black with a black and the implicit threat for not doing so is the perverse analogue of a comment made by George Wallace after losing a gubernatorial election to a more racist candidate: "I was out-niggered, and I will never be out-niggered again," Wallace said. Such racial hucksterism has been used to great affect by the likes of Rush, Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, but there’s a price to pay for it.
Gerrymandering districts has helped elect dozens of blacks to Congress. However, it has also stunted the rise of post-racial black politicians who are viable at a state or national level—that is, blacks who can win white votes. There are some, including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, and, of course, Obama. But they are the exception. Rush is more typical. His district, which includes much of the South Side of Chicago, is 65 percent black. He doesn’t need to cater to white concerns because he doesn’t need their votes to win election. And so the paradoxical predicate is laid: Rush, a standard bearer for the for-us-by-us racial ethos, and whose rise has been abetted by gerrymandering, demands that a black fill a state-level seat formerly held by Obama, the rare black politician whose appeal transcends his race.
There is hope. Black politicians with broad appeal are on the rise. Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. ran a competitive race for Senate in 2006 and Artur Davis, a black congressman from Alabama, is widely expected to run for governor of his state. There are other examples, too, proving that the Age of Obama has begun even though there are those who are in no rush to see it dawn.