Artur Davis is an ambitious man. A Harvard graduate and Democratic congressman from Alabama’s 7th congressional district, Mr. Davis is busy planning an audacious run for governor in one of America’s reddest states.
Moreover, Mr. Davis is doing all this in one of the most unfavorable environments for Democrats in recent history. His campaign, many think, is bound to fail.
But political analysts are not skeptical for any of the reasons above. They are interested, rather, in the fact that Mr. Davis has black skin. According to the Beltway, white people in Alabama will never vote for a black man – and so Mr. Davis’s campaign is doomed from the get-go.
There is some truth to this simplistic analysis. Politics in the Deep South is heavily racially polarized; often the Democrats are the party of blacks and Republicans are the party of whites. Exit polls indicate that President Barack Obama won a grand 10% of Alabama’s white vote; Senator John McCain won a grand 2% of Alabama’s black vote.
On the other hand, Mr. Obama wrote off Alabama the second the primaries ended. In Deep South Georgia, where his campaign put in some effort, the president came within 5.2%. The three southern states he contested full stop ended up voting Democratic.
Indeed, candidates who make serious appeals to “racist” voters often end up doing surprisingly well. The first state to elect an Indian-American governor was not multiethnic California, not liberal Massachusetts – but blood-red Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal overcame racial animosity through years of hard work. LA-2’s majority-black constituents surprised everybody, a month after Obama’s election, by voting for Vietnamese-American Joseph Cao instead of the black Democrat. For Alabama state representative James Fields, decades of good work and relationship-building translated into electoral support by the monolithically white residents of Cullman County, Alabama. This is quite something, given a description of Cullman County:
Cullman’s are exits off the Interstate that most African-Americans avoid. A district judge at the Cullman courthouse named Kim Chaney told me, “I do have black people who are very reluctant to come to court here because of the reputation we’ve had for so many years”…Rozalyn Love, a medical student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham explains, “Cullman is known, especially among Birmingham folks, as the racist white bigot county.” In Alabama, this is, of course, saying something.
As these examples show, racism is not a constant. A minority candidate does not automatically lose 10 or 20% of white voters just by running (or vice-versa). Instead, racism constitutes a variable that can be reduced or increased. If Mr. Obama doesn’t bother to visit Alabama, then white voters in Alabama – already predisposed to be hostile – won’t vote for him. If well-meaning Democrats always nominate white candidates, believing that minority candidates can’t win, then it literally becomes impossible for minority candidates to win.
On the other hand, if a Bobby Jindal makes a determined effort to reach out to “racist” voters, he’ll get votes. If a James Field spends decades working for “racist” places, then those places will vote for him. If a Joseph Cao runs in a district where nobody believes a non-black candidate can win, he might find himself pleasantly surprised.
So three cheers for Artur Davis, for attempting to do what everybody else deems as impossible. Perhaps Mr. Davis loses votes by being black – but he also can gain votes through intelligence, sheer determination, and by running an outstanding campaign that reaches out to everybody. If he successfully does these things, Mr. Davis might just do better than anybody can imagine.