Race & Election Coverage: Election Firsts

By Julianne Hing May 16, 2008

Please check out our elections and politics coverage on On the national stage each of the three presidential candidates represent potential “firsts” in American politics. Hillary Clinton might be the first woman president, Barack Obama the first Black president, and if elected, John McCain, at 71, would be the oldest white man to serve as President. We’re breaking ceilings everywhere! But plenty more is happening in our own backyards. This week we’re looking at other firsts in local and state races. Karen Bass, California Speaker of the House On May 15, Karen Bass was sworn in as the California Assembly Speaker at the State Capitol. It’s a milestone – Bass is the first Black woman to lead the state legislature in California’s 159-year history. In her pre-politics career she was a physician assistant. She has been a longtime champion of foster care youth, fighting for kids’ access to health care and services. Bass founded the Community Coalition in LA which worked to bring in grocery stores and laundromats, instead of liquor stores, to downtown LA. Andre Carson, Democratic nominee for Indiana’s 7th Congressional District On May 7, Andre Carson beat seven other opponents and won the Democratic primaries. He’s headed for a rematch with Republican Jon Elrod, who Carson beat by 9,000 votes in a special election in March to complete the term of Carson’s grandmother Julia Carson, who died in office. Carson would be only the second Muslim to serve in Congress (Keith Ellison became the first in 2006). Carson’s been endorsed by Barack Obama and runs on a platform advocating employer sanctions and no amnesty for undocumented immigrants, though he is a proponent of universal healthcare and ending the war in Iraq. One can only hope the association between Carson and Obama doesn’t further confuse voters still convinced that Obama is also Muslim. James Fields, Cullman County, Alabama Representative James Fields was recently elected to the House of Representatives for Cullman County, Alabama. He’s the first Black man to represent the 96% white district, an achievement not lost on the county’s electorate. Folks in town are aware of the enduring legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era, but not altogether eager to embrace any kind of racial justice, and electing Fields seems to have assuaged their guilt. “People said, ‘Of course, James is black. This is great, this will get this off our back,” said Rob Werner, a local resident, to a New York Times reporter. But in between all the self-congratulatory celebration, Cullman’s residents reveal their deep-seated racist convictions. “There’s two different races, in that race,” said James Rice, a white resident referring to Blacks. “You got some that don’t want to be nothing, and you got some that want to help. You don’t find too many like James Fields.” I’m sure Fields feels very warmed by those sentiments. We’ve got to recognize these milestones for what they are: groundbreaking landmarks. But we can’t rest on the false notion that we’ve all arrived, that the fight is over. All too often, firsts are merely symbolic. The racism Fields alone faced in his journey to his current post is evidence enough of the work yet to be done, not just in legislative bodies, but also in the courts and on the ground. And being the first is no guarantee you’re the best. These folks’ tenures in office will be the real test of their mettle. Elections, especially this season, are glamorous and exciting. But let’s not get caught up in the real fairy tale of racial politics that one man or one woman’s win means the rest of us can lay down our loads.