Running on Race: Racial Coalitions, Campaign Strategies, and the Development of Multi-Racial Democracy in the United States

 

A long-established axiom of US racial politics is that, in order to be elected in majority-white settings, black candidates must ‘deracialise’. This expectation imposes a limit on the ability of African American elected officials to promote a ‘race-conscious’ policy agenda beyond majority-black or majority-minority districts and cities. Given the way in which the structures of the American state and federalism intersect with racial population distribution, none of the most powerful offices in the United States (US senator, governor, president) have majority-black electorates. If the deracialisation theory is true, then African American politicians are structurally consigned to a ‘colour-blind’ coalition in order to secure the highest levels of power in the United States. This paper explores the extent to which it is empirically true that African American candidates for major statewide and national offices have needed to ‘deracialise’ in order to secure election. Using archival and interview sources from major black statewide candidates and their campaign teams, this paper identifies a range of racial campaign strategies deployed. It suggests that a ‘deracialised’ strategy is not necessary for black statewide candidates to win election. Advantageous race-conscious appeals can be made, but they are dependent on a constellation of circumstantial factors (i.e. racial disposition of local elites, traditions of racial egalitarianism and coalition politics, willingness of the opponent to prime negative racial stereotypes). This paper has implications for our understanding of the development of the US as a multi-racial democracy – and its limits -- since the Voting Rights Act

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