Start with an election statistic: the number of black legislators in the United States is static. There will be 372 blacks in state legislatures next year, the same number as this year; the number of blacks in Congress dropped from 22 to 21.
This contrasts with what happened in the 1970s, when the number of black legislators rose from 182 to 343. These numbers raise an important question: Have we gotten to the point where black candidates can't hope to win more elections?
No. But the opportunities for black candidates are not where many black political strategists have been looking. They look for victories in constituencies with black majorities or large black minorities that can be mobilized against hostile whites. But the chances for further gains in such places are limited. Most majority-black constituencies elect blacks already, and those that elect whites (Baltimore Mayor Donald Schaefer, Reps. Peter Rodino, Wyche Fowler, Lindy Boggs) do so because the whites have earned support from blacks.
Nor will there be many more majority-black constituencies any time soon. The Voting Rights Act, as recently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, maximizes the number of majority-black legislative districts already, and fewer central cities are approaching a racial tipping point than were in the 1965-80 period.
The victory of Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago in 1983 and the candidacy of Jesse Jackson in 1984 electrified many blacks. But Washington only did what black mayoral candidates were doing as long ago as 1967, and it's not clear that presidential candidate Jackson achieved his goal of being taken seriously by all Americans. Where they won, they did so with support almost entirely limited to blacks. Such mono- racial coalitions won't produce a significant increase in black officeholders or make blacks' political goals more attractive to the majority.
What will achieve these goals is for more blacks to run in places that are predominantly non-black, even all-white. Edward Brooke was elected senator twice in 3-percent-black Massachusetts (and lost for non-racial reasons); Thomas Bradley has been elected mayor three times in 17-percent-black Los Angeles and won 48 percent of the vote for governor in 7-percent-black California.
Whites are willing to vote for the right black candidates in the right circumstances. And there certainly is no lack of non-black constituencies in an 88-percent non-black country. Yet very few black candidates think of representing them. Why? Talk to some of the politically sophisticated young black professionals -- counterparts to the young whites who are running for and winning public office -- and you get the sense that they've never even considered the option. The alternatives for talented young blacks in law firms, businesses, academe are highly attractive. But the risks of running for office are great -- and unknown. They may fear rebuff by white voters because of their race. And the idea of someday becoming president, which propels so many ambitious young whites, seems a pipe dream for young blacks. Black candidates do face special handicaps -- Thomas Bradley and Andrew Young lost the first time they ran in majority-white cities. But they also have special advantages. Black candidates are visible, and getting noticed is the first obstacle any non-incumbent must overcome. They can attract national attention and financial support. Both parties (especially the Republicans) are eager to field more black candidates. Statewide politicians may be glad to help them.
Moreover, black candidacies in white districts can serve the highly useful function of bridging some of the differences between the races, differences symbolized by the 86 percent black vote for Walter Mondale and 63 percent white vote for Ronald Reagan. Anyone listening to black candidates in black constituencies today senses that much of the rhetoric is perfunctory, full of promises and demands everyone knows are unrealistic. Black candidates and officeholders in white districts have to eschew such rhetoric, and decide what is essential and what is dross.
At the same time, there's no need for a candidate to try to fit the voters' mold exactly. Voters are willing to indulge, may in fact be attracted by, a candidate's special concern for issues that are personally important to him or her. A black candidate running in a mostly white constituency is going to have to take positions on issues generally favorable to the majority -- no embracing Cuba, as Jesse Jackson did during his campaign. But there's no political necessity for a black candidate to deny his or her concern with issues that are especially important to blacks, no necessity even to renounce positions on such issues that are out of line with those of the majority. Black candidates provide one -- maybe the only -- means for blacks to bring their own special concerns to the attention of the majority.
True, running for office in a mostly white district is risky and imposes a discipline on political expression that many affluent, successful young blacks may not find welcome. But the risks are fewer than those experienced by the pioneers of the civil rights movement and the discipline is far less severe.