Burris Flap Tosses Glare on Virtual Lily White Senate

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush took much heat for saying this, "don't hang and lynch" him. The "him" is Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's hotly disputed Illinois senate appointee Roland Burris. Rush deliberately spoke in racially charged terms. His point was that if the Senate tried to kick Burris out it would be a political and public relations disaster. It would leave the Senate especially moderate and liberal Senate Democrats wide open to the embarrassing and awkward knock that a bunch of white senators torpedoed the appointment of a black man. The knock against them would be deserved. There are now no African-Americans in the Senate. In fact, when Obama won the Senate seat in November 2004, he became only the fifth African-American ever to sit in the Senate. If Burris isn't seated, the odds are good that the Senate will have no African-Americans for years to come.

The Senate's glaring diversity problem goes far beyond the white out of African Americans. The paucity of openly gay members, minorities and women among the 100 senators is just as glaring. The Senate is pretty much a clubby good ole' boy network of mostly rich, white males.

The Senate has sole power to approve a declaration of war, debate treaties, approve nominations to the Supreme Court and decide the guilt or innocence of an impeached president.

The Founding Fathers made no secret that they wanted the Senate to be an Olympian lawmaking body. James Madison bluntly wrote that the Senate should be the ultimate check to prevent the people from "overwhelming" government. For nearly 125 years, state legislators elected senators. The 17th Amendment passed in 1913 changed that. But it did not end the Senate's political insulation and elitism. Nearly two-dozen senators are millionaires. Many have been in the Senate for decades, and they are virtually impossible to unseat. The six-year Senate term of office is the longest of any elected body in America. That spares senators the need to continually debate issues and policy decisions directly with voters. It also shields their legislative actions from public scrutiny.

Mississippi is a textbook example of how changing racial demographics have little effect on Senate incumbents. Blacks comprise a third of the state's population, and more than a quarter of the voters. They are solidly Democratic. Mississippi had the one of highest percentage of black delegates at the Democratic convention in 2008. Yet before Trent Lott quit the Senate he and Thad Cochran, had been in the Senate more than four decades.

A Senate candidate also must raise millions, get their party's official stamp and appeal to conservative, white middle-class voters to get elected. Senate seats aren't cheap. Obama raised a record $4 million dollars in a three-month span in his winning Senate effort. If the FBI wiretaps are accurate, Blagojevich allegedly demanded a half million for a fill-in appointment to Obama's seat. But money's not all it takes to grab a Senate seat. Obama preached a centrist, conservative message of family values, tax fairness and military preparedness and an emphasis of toughness on national security and the war on terrorism. He had to in order to draw support from conservative white Democrat voters and neutralize Republicans in central and downstate Illinois.

In the past, several measures have been bandied about to correct political imbalances and insure fairer and more diverse representation in the Senate. They include more public funding, same-day voter registration, equal access to TV time for qualified independent candidates, instant runoffs and proportional representation. But even if one of these measures were to weather the fierce resistance from top Democrats and Republicans and get off the drawing board, it would do little to fix the Senate's diversity problem.

Unlike House representatives and state legislators, the Senate is not based on proportional representation. Senators represent a broad geographic area instead of specific districts. Though California's population is 60 times greater than Wyoming, it has the same number of senators. The chance of a Constitutional overhaul to change that is nil.

A shameful racial example of the Senate's unlimited power to make and enforce its own rules was aimed at Mississippi Sen. Hiram Revels, the first black in the Senate. When Revels presented his credentials to the Senate in February 1870, some senators immediately demanded he be rejected on the grounds that he did not meet the nine-year citizenship requirement for a senator (he did). The move was defeated, and Revels was eventually seated to fill the unexpired term of the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Revels served barely a year.

Other than the single term that Blanche K. Bruce served a decade after Revels, it took nearly a century before black Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke entered the halls. Not much has changed since then. Whether Burris is seated or not, the Senate is the world's most elite and august chamber and still virtually lily white.


  • Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).