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Carol Swain  Black Faces, Black Interests

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"Angel B. Johnson" <abjohns@ilstu.edu> Review of Swain "Black Faces, Black Interests"(Johnson)

Date: Mon, 11 Mar 1996 10:19:37 -0600 
From: "Angel B. Johnson" <abjohns@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu>
Subject: Review of Swain "Black Faces, Black Interests"(Johnson) 

Carol Swain,  Black Faces, Black Interests

REVIEWED BY: Angel B. Johnson abjohns@ilstu.edu

March 5, 1996

In the fascinating game of politics, nothing captivates the interests of the public more than the aura that surrounds the political players. Whether you're a constituent directly affected by decisions made by a representative or observing from a far, politics is truly a game which clearly defines the winners and the losers. The winners, defined by (sometimes positive) high profiles and political success enjoy the clout that comes with their success. The losers can be classified as something different. They can be described as those that haven't been successful in getting legislation passed. They could also be the candidates that have gotten caught in the midst of political scandal and are now paying the price in the penitentiary. Ultimately, the constituents are the biggest losers.

Carol M. Swain, a professor from Princeton University, explores various ideologies regarding the representation of African-Americans in Black Faces, Black Interests. African-American candidates and their abilities to represent African-American districts are the primary focus of this book. Swain studies the constituency relations of black members of congress from a variety of districts - historically black, newly black, heterogenous and primarily white. Beginning with a complex definition of two different types of representation, she outlines components that could be most beneficial in the quest for greater representation of the African-American community in congress.

In descriptive representation, the candidates usually possess characteristics that are similar to that of its constituents. These characteristics usually incorporate similarities between the candidate's and constituents' age, race , gender and occupation. Simply put, Swain defines it as black officeholders representing black constituents. She considers this relationship to be a key determinant in the success of legislative issues and the candidate's political career.

Substantive representation deals with the representative and his/her responsiveness to the constituents needs and interests. A shared racial or ethnic heritage is not always the case here. In substantive representation, the constituents usually do not consider race an important issue in selecting a candidate. Constituents in these districts tend to look at a candidate's abilities, their voting record and previous accomplishments.

Historically black districts, as defined in the text, are congressional districts with a black voting age population of over 50% and have had representation in congress for ten years or more. These districts usually share a common set of problems. Often they are poverty stricken with soaring rates of unemployment and crime. Constituents in these areas tend to elect militant black representatives to deal with the social and economic disorder. These residents are usually looking for someone that they can instill faith in to help them "take back their streets". Potential problems exist in historically black districts. Usually in an urban setting, it is almost always the case that the political machines here are very diverse. Swain argues that blacks in these poverty stricken areas need to form coalitions with white representatives to serve their needs as well. They should not be dependent upon the black militant leader to save them from the streets because eventually the coalitions that are formed with other organizations will prove to be valuable.

Newly black districts have been created in recent years through redistricting methods such as gerrymandering or even court ordered procedures. This was done due to a tremendous increase in black populations in certain areas. Since these districts had a black voting population of less than 50%, White voters in the area were crucial in deciding which black candidates would eventually win that congressional seat. Mike Espy, a former assistant attorney general with no prior political experience, was successful in his bid for congress in a newly black district in Mississippi. His case illustrates the enormous power of white voters when blacks are running for a political seat.

With the emergence of an increasing number of heterogenous districts, the need for the candidate to establish a multiracial coalition is vital. Because heterogenous districts are made up of several ethnic groups, this frequently creates conflict between the potential candidates. In the case of minority candidates, these conflicts can turn quite ugly because this is often their first chance at acquiring a political office. Typically, black representatives from heterogenous districts have a voting record similar to that of other black representatives. Mervyn Dymally, a congressman from the Los Angeles area, scored 100% on both the COPE scale and the LCCR index. However, his participation was slightly lower than the congressional average. Black candidates in heterogenous areas really have to watch their performance. These candidates need to acknowledge the needs of all the constituents in the areas.

What is black representation in primarily white districts? Most people have argued that there isn't much. Usually if a black candidate is elected from a primarily white district, he is seen as a "token" by some because the assumption is made that he is a Republican running against a very liberal Democrat. However, Swain counters this point. Even though, only 1% of the African-Americans in congress are from majority white districts, Swain does not seem concerned. She believes that primarily white districts offer blacks the greatest potential for growth. From 1970-1990, there were eight black representatives elected from majority white districts (4 - 46% of blacks were voting age). Another seven were elected from areas that were less than 65% black.

Carol Swain finally outlines what she believes will be the future of black congressional representation. Creating newly black districts will not significantly increase black representation. She sees this as a disadvantage to black candidates. They are dependent upon winning the seats in predominately black areas when these efforts could be exhausted by getting some coverage and background established in other areas. Packing black voters will diminish the overall representation of blacks. Increased black representation from majority white districts is possible. Swain believes that these areas could be promising for black politicians. They would be able to grow in these areas. She believes that this could also help eliminate some of the racially polarized voting that we see today.

The final point that Swain makes is quite interesting. She advocates that blacks and whites can represent the interests of each other. She believes that white representatives are capable of supporting and defending the goals of African-Americans. Lindy Boggs (LA) takes her position seriously. Even though, she is in a majority white district, she still fights for civil rights legislation and Great Society programs when there were not that many blacks in congress with the experience or resources to take on some of the leadership roles. She believes that black representatives can be effective in representing the issues most important to white constituents. Winning the elections in a majority white district can prove to be fruitful for African-American candidates. They not only gain the trust of the white voters in their district but they do an equally good job representing the black legislative agenda as well.

Overall, I believe Carol Swain did a nice job outlining the current political situation of African-Americans in congress today. Although the Republicans have taken over the House and the Senate, black representation seems to be increasing. History was made when Carol Moseley-Braun was the first African-American woman elected to the United States Senate. By 1994, the number of representatives in the House had increased to 38 from 25. That is an increase by over 50%. But is progress really being made to the extent that Swain described it? She described how eight representatives were elected from majority white districts in 20 years. That is an extremely small number considering how large this country is. Another seven were elected from areas in which the black voting age population was less than 65%. In this example, it sounds as if blacks might have been the majority in that particular area and stood a good chance of winning anyway.

African-Americans make up approximately 12% of this country's population. However, the numbers in the House and Senate do not reflect how diverse this country is. Clearly in a lot of areas, white candidates have been elected to serve the needs of the black constituents in their area. Is this really effective? To an extent, it could be. It could also be potentially dangerous for the candidate when it is time for them to run again and they realize that they have not fulfilled all those promises. They did not fight for civil rights legislation or affirmative action programs. These are not the only concerns that African-Americans have but issues like these will arise and white politicians need to be prepared to deal with them.

Angel B. Johnson abjohns@ilstu.edu.  

-- Angel B. Johnson abjohns@ilstu.edu  
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