African Americans and the Democratic Party

Charles Blow in the New York Times on May 23 wrote an oped "Blacks, Conservatives, and Plantation".  He used the provocative title to set up his critique of black conservatives and the way they have been talking about the reliable rate that African Americans vote for Democratic Party candidates. 

Blow objects to the slavery metaphors being used, that African Americans have "slavish" devotion to the Democratic party, or that like childlike slaves, they "have to be told what to do" or provided for, which is why they remain with the Democratic Party. For example, he cites Star Parker, a Scripps Howard syndicated columnist who wrote, “A benevolent Uncle Sam welcomed mostly poor black Americans onto the government plantation. Those who accepted the invitation switched mind-sets from ‘How do I take care of myself?’ to ‘What do I have to do to stay on the plantation?’"  Blow says all these slave metaphors used by black conservatives perpetuate the "Democratic Plantation theology" that Blow summarizes as:

Democrats use the government to addict and incapacitate blacks by giving them free things — welfare, food stamps and the like. This renders blacks dependent on and beholden to that government and the Democratic Party.

Blow points out the similarities of the Democratic Plantation theology to Romney's comment about the 47% who will vote for the Obama because they feel entitled to government services.

The reasons these metaphors are offense need to be unpacked. Blow capably summarizes the unspoken understandings of all of these messages: 1) African Americans are mindlessly devoted to the Democratic Party and cannot make rational decisions discerning which party is more attuned to their needs. 2) African Americans vote for the Democratic Party allegedly in exchange for the social services provided to them and on which they are dependent. 3) And finally the most devastating charge of all, that African Americans are therefore complicit in their enslavement and dependency on the Democratic Party.

Blow is right to be outraged, but he misses the institutionalized racism built into the structure of our political system that causes this kind of talk.  I specifically refer to the two party system we have in the U.S.  Political scientist, Paul Frymer's work is illuminating here.  In his book Uneasy Alliances:  Race and Party Competition in America, Frymer argues that the first past the post system for elections leads to a two party system (as opposed to proportional representation system like in many parlimentary systems).  In turn, this two party system ensures that African American concerns are marginalized by both parties as candidates calibrate themselves to appeal to white swing voters. In other words, racism is built right in to our political institutions.

Alas, the election of Obama only proves Frymer's argument. Obama has assiduously avoided talking about explicitly racial issues and even talks to black audiences in a different way that he talks to white ones, often in an uncomfortable "blame the vicitm" tone as Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out. Blow is right to find disgusting the rhetoric of black conservatives and others about African Ameircans, race, and the Democratic party, but we need to understand the parts of our polticial system that are hardwired to produced such shameful and shallow discourse and the even more damaging results of perpetuating racial inequality.