As a youngster I always ate more than my share- literally. Growing up in a traditional Southern Black household, my diet would have probably brought Michelle Obama to tears. Collard greens, macaroni and cheese, turkey wings, neckbones, black eyed peas, and peach cobbler were frequently on my dinner table (I should probably stop listing foods before I start salivating). One of the few times I ever shut up was when my mother put her world famous stuffing in front me. I usually ate all my food before my parents even finished. Then I would usually take the rest of the portion on their plates. Finally at the tender age of ten my mom had seen enough. She told me that I couldn’t just go around and take other people’s food. If I wanted to ever have friends I needed to learn that I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. Although this has served as a great life lesson for me, I feel like I’m struggling with the same dilemma today, the only difference is that it is political now. The representation of Black interests in Congress has always been about descriptive representation vs. substantive representation. But can Black America have it’s cake and eat it too?
Back in my home state of Florida there are two redistricting amendments that will appear on the November 2nd ballot that have many Black politicians and civil rights organizations bumping heads. Amendments 5 and 6 on November’s ballot are designed to remove politics from the process. These redrawn districts should not help or hurt political parties and, when possible, would have to be drawn along the boundaries that make up cities or counties. The amendments need 60 percent voter approval and are sponsored by a group called Fair Districts Florida, which has raised $4.2 million from mostly Democratic-leaning interests. The Florida State Conference of the NAACP and Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus are all in favor of this measure. However, U.S. Representatives Corrine Brown (D)and Mario Diaz-Balart (R), who both represent majority-minority districts, are vehemently opposed to this measure. They are opposed to it on the grounds that many Black and Brown congressmen will lose their gerrymandered districts. But, is it too much to ask the congressional districts be compact and contiguous? Having a representative that lives in another county with another area code is highly problematic.
In 1991 although Blacks made up 12 % of the population they only comprised 6% or 25 Congressional Seats. Currently, there is one Black senator and 41 Black U.S. representatives. But what is the state of Black America? Too many Black folks are still living below the poverty line, too many Black children are attending failing schools, and too many Black and Brown people have limited access to vital social services. Do we want descriptive representation or substantive representation? Descriptive representation is considered to be serving particular, demographic characteristics in the population-for example- race, gender, religion, occupation, or age. While substantive representation is a politician’s actual performance.
Although the two are not mutually exclusive they have often collided. Oscar De Priest, the first Black elected to Congress in the 20th century, was anything but a champion for Black interests. During his first term he sponsored no legislation. During his tenure he opposed Depression era federal relief programs. De Priest was followed by Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell was the first Black Democrat elected to Congress. Mitchell was markedly more active than De Priest. He voted for an anti-lynching bill, civil service reform, and desegregation of interstate travel. However, he rubbed a lot of blacks the wrong with his comments that he was going to represent the 19,000 whites that voted for him. Also, he supported Hugo Black, a former Klansmen, for Supreme Court. History shows us that descriptive representation has often been at odds with the interests of Black folks.
Although there are 600,000 more registered Democrats in Florida, Republicans hold a 2-1 majority in the state legislature. These same Republicans carved up Corrine Brown’s majority Black district. Although Mrs. Brown can say that she is representing Black interests in Congress, many other liberals/progressives are not getting fair representation.
I truly believe that you can have your cake and eat it too, but the cake can’t be stale. We need fair and equitable representation in Congress more than we need Black faces to fill the jobs.