Black VP politics and the case for Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer

Black VP politics and the case for Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer
© Greg Nash/The Hill

As Democrat Joe BidenJoe BidenOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate Trump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' MORE gauges the merits of potential vice presidential candidates, he is under growing pressure to select a Black woman. However, there is an argument to be made that the future of Black politics in America would be better served by his selection of a white candidate.

Under this argument, Black interests would benefit by avoiding the all-consuming entanglement of a vicious presidential campaign and by concentrating on political gains available in the states. In short, the Black political agenda could be indirectly advanced by the selection of Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerCoronavirus lockdowns work Michigan resident puts toilet on front lawn with sign 'Place mail in ballots here' Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election MORE as the vice presidential nominee.

First, Whitmer’s political assets are sound by most accounts: She brings experience and organization as a state legislator and governor of a swing state. She is telegenic in a media-driven environment because of social distancing mandates. She should appeal to moderate suburban white women, appears to draw support from moderate white men, and has good relations with Black voters in Michigan.

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Her selection would turn over the state to Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, a youthful Detroit native and rising star in state politics. He would become the only Black governor in the country and the first in the Midwest. If Biden wins the White House, Gilchrist would have two years to prepare to run for a full term as governor, with the support of the Democratic Party establishment.

This is not to say that the prominent Black women on Biden’s reported short list of running mates should be dismissed easily. However, Susan Rice, the candidate with the most apparent strengths, is probably better suited as Secretary of State. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms appears too inexperienced for what will be a nasty national contest. And Stacey Abrams — who narrowly lost the 2018 race for governor of Georgia — has unfinished business in the state in 2022.  

Just from a social-psychological standpoint, the selection of Whitmer would spare the Black community from an onslaught by President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE against a Black woman and family. Already, his campaign appears to be engaged in a racism-tinged appeal that shifts from President Obama to Black Lives Matters and more. It probably would cherish the opportunity to denigrate a little-known Black woman nominee. By the end, she could become a rallying cry for white supremacists in his base.

More importantly, Black political leaders must embark on a new strategy for the 21st century. There is far too much reliance on concessions derived through federal programs, congressional elections, and jockeying for positions in the Democratic establishment. No doubt this approach has delivered benefits in some laws, programs and the memorable administration of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMichelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez exchange Ginsburg memories Pence defends Trump's 'obligation' to nominate new Supreme Court justice The militia menace MORE. Yet, it also has made the Black community unduly dependent on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

And the approach has failed to deliver a winning political strategy for Black leverage in the states. The inability of Blacks to exercise power in states where they constitute sizable populations has been a critical weakness since Reconstruction. Much of the problem has been the result of violent repression, disenfranchisement, manipulation by allies, and reluctance to renew the Voting Rights Act. At the same time, the Black political class bears responsibility for a myopic political vision.

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A winning strategy must emphasize opportunities in the states and the building of a political power base in one southern state. So, it means that more may be gained in real political terms from the elevation of Lt. Gov. Gilchrist than from the selection of a Black woman as the VP nominee.

It means that Black leaders should take seriously the opportunity to gain a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. There, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Savannah native and minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, stands a chance of becoming the first Black U.S. senator from the Peach State. He is vying for the seat held by Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

As I have suggested, the “Georgia imperative” is critical to the freedom of Black folk in this land. Despite the Black Lives Matter movement, and its support by many whites, the folk will always require a safe haven from racial violence. Our history is marked by a vulnerability to anti-Black agitation. In today’s divisive environment, it doesn’t take much to spur haters to act out.

Black leaders must consider the viability of establishing a political safe haven in Georgia. It would model the strategy of other marginalized groups that resorted to building power in a state, such as the Mormons in Utah. Currently, Blacks comprise about 32 percent of the Georgia population and have a capable political class anchored in the major cities.

Today, Georgia’s Black political leaders are ready to take the lead, combat suspicions of election fraud, and work with allies to manage the state. Warnock’s campaign is a chance to reignite the dream of the Abrams campaign and to build a power base independent of white liberals.

However, it may take cultural figures to show the political class the way forward. For example, players in the Women’s National Basketball Association have called attention to the Warnock campaign. Other cultural creators can help to promote the migration of Black voters to the state. It could involve informing Black college graduates and retirees of the cost-of-living advantages in Georgia.  

The vision of a majority-minority state will not diminish the cause for civil rights and free associations in the country. It will instead illuminate the advantages of skillful Black management of the major departments, laws, programs and police forces of the state. Certainly, this is a more worthy goal for the Black political class than seeking a vice presidential office.

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