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Georgia's Raphael Warnock and the new capital of Black America

Georgia's Raphael Warnock and the new capital of Black America
© Courtesy Raphael Warnock

Of the six new Black candidates for U.S. Senate, only the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Georgia survived to fight another day. The five others crashed and burned in their respective states, including two with better-resourced campaigns. The Warnock campaign was a long-shot gamble largely ignored by the Democratic Party. Now, however, liberal groups are trying to lay hands on the achievement — as President Kennedy noted, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” 

For the Warnock campaign to win in the January runoff, it must avoid becoming the next darling of the white left. In Mississippi, Mike Espy became a poster child of the New York Times editorial pages. In South Carolina, Jamie Harrison was funded by the huge donations of groups seeking to retaliate against Republican Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Let's give thanks to Republican defenders of democracy MORE. Both candidates allowed themselves to be defined by the money or issues of the progressive wing — and ended in defeat.

Now those same interests are gathering around a Warnock campaign that they once wrote off. His quest was considered too much of a long shot and most people bet on the campaign of Jon Ossoff, running for the second Senate seat in Georgia. His run was more in the southern tradition of Black voters expected to propel white males to statewide office.

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On one hand, Warnock may have benefitted from flying under the radar. It allowed him to focus on building a political organization in the Black community and to avoid the stigma of the liberal agenda. On the other hand, he suffered from limited access to the capital and technical experts.

Now, the campaign will be solicited by liberal interests seeking to capture him as their new darling — and to use his influence with the folk to serve the interests of the progressive wing. That makes the next two months a tricky period for the direction of the campaign and for the essential goal of the “Georgia Imperative.”

The Georgia Imperative is a concept to build a sustainable Black political power base in the state. It is a response to the divisive politics and race relations of recent years. To ordinary folk, the lessons of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, of the Michigan militia, and the election of Trump underscore the intransigence of white supremacy. Under periods of stress, it may take only a tweet to spur people to act out.

This reality has motivated people to seek out a safe haven in this land — not an ethno-state as much as a place where they can rely on consistent influence to make laws and run the government. Georgia could become such a state with its large and growing Black population, decent economy, and capable political class.

In Georgia, Blacks can assume the role of a decisive voting bloc. Today, white liberals want to interpret the election as evidence of a New York City-style coalition transplanted in the South — northern whites, Latinos, Asians, gays and, oh yeah, local Black voters. This is a self-serving analysis meant to minimize the dominant position of Black Democrats.

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A more cogent interpretation would be that Black voters, with the right strategy, constitute a force for a new politics in the South. They are becoming a political base with the flexibility to forge alliances of mutual interest with disparate groups.

The Warnock campaign needs to appeal to more voters if it wants to win. It probably has gained what little benefits white liberalism can offer in the state. To expand beyond his current supporters — and to nurture an ongoing political organization — he will need to show a streak of independence from the liberal agenda. In the context of Georgia’s politics, that means exploring areas of common interest with conservative white Christians and with agribusiness, among other sectors. That means sensible reconciliation of the interests of moderate Black Democrats with the anticipations of receptive white conservatives.

As a Baptist minister, Warnock is well-positioned to encourage a “value of life” agenda: end the pandemic, expand Medicaid, reform prison sentencing, train police better, promote sensible gun ownership, reduce abortion rates, encourage racial understanding and personal determination, among other ideas.

Warnock could be the last, best hope for Blacks to realize the Georgia Imperative. This vision of a sustainable power base should not override the valiant cause of equal rights, of course — but the perfect should not be made the enemy of the good. The quest for a place where Blacks oversee the governance, laws and police forces has merit. The success of Warnock could serve as a recruitment magnet to college graduates, skilled workers and independent retirees interested in building this new capital of Black America.

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a curated website on African American history and culture.