Sunday, January 04, 2009

Race-Based Politics? In Richmond?

In his January 1 TD column, Michael Paul Williams had this to say about Douglas Wilder’s mayorship:

“Wilder gets props for changing the arc of Richmond history by ushering in a new era of civic democracy. In doing so, he aided Richmond in its maturation beyond race-based politics.” 1

Like Mike Williams I would like to think that Richmond has gotten beyond race-based politics. But, being a little closer to the political process this fall, I am a bit less optimistic about things than Mike is. When I was canvassing voters for my own campaign I spoke with many voters. Some of those voters wanted to talk about the mayoral race. All of the African American voters that indicated their choice for mayor to me supported Dwight Jones. The Caucasian voters who spoke to me about their choice were not united in who they supported, but they all strongly opposed Dwight Jones. I know it’s not a reliable sample. Further, I don’t know (because I didn’t ask) why the white voters I spoke to opposed Delegate Jones. So, let’s look at some research I did for a piece that I started but never published back in October.

According to the 2000 Census, six of Richmond’s nine council districts have a majority black population. (“Black” and “white” are the terms used by the Census Bureau). The three other districts have black populations of 4% (First), 31% (Second) and 27% (Fourth). This census data is eight years old so things may have changed but I don’t think the changes are significant.

Now, let’s look at the election results. Dwight Jones received just under 40% of the votes cast for mayor in Richmond. He won a plurality of the votes in six of the nine council districts, enough to be elected. The three districts that Delegate Jones did not carry in the election were the First, Second and Fourth districts—the same three districts that had majority white populations in the 2000 Census. In the First District, the district that had less than 10% black population according to the census, Jones only won 9.8% of the vote and finished third behind Bill Pantele and Robert Grey. In the Second and Fourth districts, Jones won 23.1% and 25.9% of the vote respectively. In the six districts that he did win, Delegate Jones received 37.9% (Third), 42.6% (Fifth), 57.4% (Seventh), 61.3% (Sixth), 63.1% (Eighth) and 65.1% (Ninth).

I know that there are a whole lot of factors (other than race) that motivated voters on Election Day. But, to this maven, it appears that there was some correlation between the race of the voters and the candidates they favored for mayor on November 4. I know that on the City Council and the School Board race seems a less significant factor in determining who gets elected. However, unlike Mike Williams, I don’t think that race-based politics is a thing of the past in Richmond.

What does this mean for Mayor Dwight? He must work just a bit harder to demonstrate to those people in the districts that he did not win that he is their mayor too. In governing, he must address the needs of the city as a whole, rather than just the needs of the communities that supported him in the election. He also has to divorce himself from the attitude that was reported in the TD last week. According to that account, Senator Henry Marsh considers Mayor Dwight to be next in the line of Richmond’s black mayors. 2

Dwight Jones must not think of himself as a black mayor. He must think of himself as the mayor of Richmond who just happens to be African American. And, he must communicate that attitude to all the citizens of our fair city. He also must communicate his view that politics in Richmond is not a battle between whites and blacks over who controls the city. Only then will be begin to mature beyond race-based politics in River City.


Paul H said...

For more concrete examples of "Race Based Politics" look at the gerrymandered district of Bobby Scott which is only connected by long wide stretches of the James River or the Rorschach Test view of 70th District seat of our new mayor.

Preston M. Yancy said...

I am afraid race still matters. I was the only African American who was willing to go on record in opposition to an all ward election system for City Council. I argued that a majority of Council should have to listen to all citizens. I said have 5 districts and 4 at large. That way 5 of the nine council members would have to listen to voters accross the City. And it would mean that the 4 best qualified candidates could be elected regardless of where they lived.
No one paid any attention to my logic. The total focus was on more blacks on City Council. So we got the "Balkanization" of the City and "the cesspool of corruption."
When I ran for School Board, the general consensus was that Algenon Brown, Melvin Law and I were well qualified, but only one of us could be elected because we live in the same district. I would have stood a better chance if I could have run for one of four at large seats as opposed to running against a former school board chairman and a veteran public schools educator.
But back to the issue of race. My hypothesis is that race is related to clan, tribe, nation etc. It flows from the need to find security in group membership. And of course there is the long history of American racism.
So yes "Race Matters"; transcending it is a long slow process. But there now some very obvious signs of progress towards that day "when we will be judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin."
Preston M Yancy