African Americans And American Politics

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This paper says that gradually America is living up to its promise that all men are created equal and as such should be allowed to participate in governing their society. America initially did not consider Africans as real adults (the constitution called then four- fifths of a person) and did not extend to them the vote and participation in politics. With the 13, 14 and 15 amendments to the constitution their humanity was recognized. Still, obstacles were placed on their way. However, the 1960s monumental changes in America appears to have finally made it possible for black men to participate in politics and many of them are trying to do so although they are handicapped by poor finances seeing that it now costs millions to get elected to even Congress and billions to be elected the President of the United States.

 

THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SYSTEM AND ITS AFRICAN AMERICAN CITIZENS

 

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

 

       In this paper I will briefly explain the American political system and examine its relationship with persons of African origin.

     The framers of the American constitution divided the functions of government into its three functional areas and had different persons in charge of each area; they implicitly wanted them to be at war with each other; the idea was that if they were each trying to protect their territory that that way tyranny would be averted in the land. Tranny results when power is concentrated in one person or one center so the Framers of the American constitution divided power both at the federal level and at the local level. Certain powers were given to the center and others given to the states. The logic behind this form of government is articulated by the French political philosopher, Charles Montesquieu in his book, The Spirit of Laws. (Also see The Federalist Papers by Hamilton, Madison and Jay.)

       There are essentially three areas of government: the legislative (law making part), the executive (law implementation part) and the judicial (the law adjudicating part).

         In the British system of government all three functions are centered in the Parliament (Parliament makes the laws, the Prime Minister and his cabinet who are members of Parliament implement the laws and the highest court of the judiciary who are part of the House of Lords have final say so on legal matters).

         In the United States Congress is given the law making function; the President is given the law executing function and the Supreme Court is given the law adjudicating function.

      Congress has two parts, the House of representative (each member representing approximately the same number of persons in the country but each state must, at least, have a member regardless of its population) and a Senate with each state having two senators. The Senate is obviously not democratic for a state with less than a million persons in it as Alaska has two senators as a state like California with almost forty million persons in it.  Apparently, the framers did what they did to emphasize that the states have equal status.

     The two houses of Congress have coequal powers. Each house must pass the same piece of legislation and then convene a conference committee to reconcile whatever differences they have and then revote on the bill and pass it before it is sent to the president for his signature.

    Each house has a leader. In the case of the House of Representative it is the Speaker; in the case of the Senate it is the vice president (usually represented by a president pro-tem).  The speaker of the house is selected from the party with the majority members in the House; the leader of the party with the majority in the Senate is essentially the leader of the Senate, and the leader of the other party is the minority leader (America has only two political parties).

        The two houses are divided into committees where bills are discussed in detail and voted on and if they pass they are reported to the whole House where they are voted on again.  

         The process of law making is that any member could introduce a bill; the speaker assigns the bill to the appropriate committee dealing with the subject matter of the bill. The chairperson of the committee decides whether the bill is relevant and if he does schedules a public hearing on it.  Most bills do not get a public hearing and die before any one even hears of them.  The date for such public hearing is publicized and persons and groups who would like to come and speak in support of it or against it register their intentions to do and some are invited.  Generally, it is powerful interest groups and top members of the bureaucracy that come to testify.  After such hearing a vote is taken on the bill and if it passes it is forwarded to the speaker to be scheduled for house debate.

       The speaker schedules House debate on the bill. During debate members of the house can add amendments to the bill and those are voted on before proceeding. Eventually the resulting bill is voted by the entire house and if it passes it moves forward.

      As the bill is going through the legislative process in the house a version of it is also going through similar process in the Senate.  Senate committees examine the bill, hold public hearing and vote on it. If it passes it is sent to the entire Senate floor.  Here the Senate differs rather considerably because the Senate practice called filibuster can hold a bill for a long time or even kill it. A senator can filibuster a bill and delay voting on it. To overrule him sixty members of the Senate must vote in favor of proceeding.  Most bills do not have that kind of support in the Senate and therefore die even if a simple majority (51 senators) supports it. 

       Assuming that a bill makes it through the Senate floor and is approved it then goes to a conference committee where whatever differences it has with the House bill are reconciled and the bills are returned to both houses to be voted on again.  If it passes both houses it is sent to the President to sign it or veto it (not sign it).

       If the president vetoes a bill it takes two thirds of house and senate vote to override his veto.  Most bills do not have that kind of support in the house or senate therefore it is difficult to override a presidential veto.

         What this means in real life is that as the bill is going through both houses the leaders of the two houses make sure that what they are crafting is acceptable to the President for there is no need spending all that time on a bill to see the President kill it.  In effect, the President is intimately involved in the legislative process. Indeed bills likely to pass the two houses are those either supported by the President or initiated by him.

       The average congressman can spend years in Washington and not have had a bill he introduced become law.  Generally, if a member wants to have his bill see the light of day he has to obtain many cosponsors of it; many members supporting a bill makes it likely to be even discussed at the committee level. 

       The legislative process is an intricate dance and only astute politicians get their bills go through the intricate process and become law.

 

         The Constitution designated the President the chief executive officer of the government as well as the commander in chief of the United States armed forces.  What this means is that he heads the arm of government that implements laws and public policies reached by Congress.  The President technically is the bureaucracy; in reality he hires bureaucrats to help him in implementing the laws and policies of the government.  Most members of the bureaucracy are hired through a civil service system; the President only appoints the heads of the various departments of the bureaucracy. His cabinet secretaries head the departments and serve at his pleasure. He hires (with Senate approval) and fires the secretaries at his pleasure.  The President is the chief law enforcer of the government.

      The president is the commander in chief of the army, navy, air force and marines (and coast guards). Each of these military services is a huge bureaucracy with its internal hiring and promotion pattern. The President upon recommendation selects from the most senior members of each service (generals) who heads each service.  He appoints the chief of staff of the chiefs of each military service. The chief of staff of the armed forces reports to him directly and through him the President gives orders regarding military operations. Ultimately, the bucks’ stops in the White House’s oval office; the President is in charge of what the military does or does not do.

 

        The President and Congress must both agree on a bill before it becomes law; therefore both parties are intimately involved in the legislative process. Both must agree on the specifics for a bill to become an Act of Congress signed by the President. Governing therefore is a dance between the President and Congress both looking over their shoulders with an eye to what the Supreme Court would approve for there is no point going through the elaborate process of crafting a bill into law if when it is challenged to the Supreme Court, as many of them are, it is ruled unconstitutional hence killed.

        In effect, the three branches of government are involved in ruling America.  Although the framers of the constitution clearly meant for Congress to have more power than the other two branches it is difficult to say that that is the case in real life. 

       The dance of the three branches of government makes the legislative process very slow and cumbersome but apparently that is the only way to make sure that only ideas agreed to by all are approved and that no one person becomes a tyrant telling American people what to do.

       Americans formed the Republic because they were resentful of King George the third of Britain and his parliament telling them what to do without their consent. 

        America is said to be a democracy where the government is by the people and for the people (we can now add people with money since it cots loads of money to run for political offices...it now costs over a million dollars to run for Congress and over a billion dollars to run for the presidency...is America a democracy or a plutocracy, you decide).

 

         What exists at the federal level (Washington DC) is replicated at the state, county and city levels of government.  At the state there is a legislature, a governor and a judicial system.  At the county level is a county council, a county executive and a county court system.  At the city level is a city council, a mayor and magistrate courts.

       The process of making laws at all levels (federal, state, county and city) is  pretty much the same (some states have a unicameral legislature but most have a bicameral legislature; counties and cities have a single council).

 

         Politics in America is said to be available to all Americans who want to participate in the political process.  It is said that the individual chooses how he participates, either through elective office or through other ways, including lobbying elected officials to see if they can listen to his ideas on how society ought to be governed.

        Americans are a people who like social fellowship; they are very associative and easily make friends; they like to get together and talk about their social and political issues. In New England states they have town hall meetings at which they attempt to make decisions collectively. But society has grown very large and it is kind of difficult to have participatory democracy in a nation of over three hundred million people; there is simply no way that all Americans can get together and discuss matters and vote on them. They have to have representative democracy even at the local level (city, town).

 

        People behave according to their culture. The Englishmen who first settled in the thirteen colonies brought with them the political culture of England. At the time they came over England was ruled by aristocrats; the middle class had not yet come to its own.  Naturally, when they settled in America they replicated their English pattern of governance whereby the landed aristocracy ruled the landless. In Virginia and other colonies those who had large land estates were the gentlemen who participated in whatever governance was permitted the colonists by the governor (at the legislature where local matters were discussed). Thus, initially only the propertied class participated in politics.  Later, political participation was pretty much extended to all white males above a certain age provided they paid their taxes and met other obligations.

 

        During the colonial period it was out of the question for black folk to participate in politics.  There were always a few free black persons, even landed ones with their own slaves but by and large they were not recognized as having the same rights as white men. 

        With independence from Britain Americans began governing themselves in earnest. During those days the means of transportation was rather slow (horses, carriages) and only the rich could afford such transportation to state capitals hundreds of miles away and stay there during legislative sessions and not worry about making a living. It was the landed gentry who had other people (mostly slaves) working for them that had the luxury to go to colonial Williamsburg and later Richmond (in the case of Virginia) to participate in state politics. 

       Simply put politics was restricted to the landed or propertied gentlemen. Women were not considered to have the mind to talk about politics let alone participate in politics.  Africans were not considered intelligent enough to participate in governing society.

       When slavery ended in 1864 we saw how during the reconstruction era many black folk attempted to participate in state and local government, even at the federal level. There were even a couple black senators during the reconstruction era.  We saw how in the South (where most blacks lived) all sorts of tactics were employed to eventually keep blacks out of politics; they were even denied the right to vote.

      In a few northern states a few blacks broke through the northern belief that Africans were not intelligent and played some role in politics. But for all intents and purposes black role in American politics is a recent phenomenon, a post 1960s phenomenon.

        With the passage of the civil rights Act in 1964 and other legislations that made it possible for black folks to participate in politics blacks took active interest in politics. They made efforts to overcome the various obstacles to voting which the South placed on the path to voting for blacks (such as literacy tests, poll taxes, residency requirements and other shenanigans). A considerable number of blacks registered to vote and voted and have increased black presence in America’s politics.

       African American political actors have to deal with apportionment shenanigans. The United States conducts national census every ten years. After each census, based on its population each state is assigned a given number of congressmen. The powers ruling each state decide how to divide their internal constituencies in light of the number of congressional seats assigned to them.

      Generally, they would split black communities and attach small pieces to districts where the majority persons in them are white folks; that way black folks remain minority while whites are in the majority. This meant that invariably a white candidate won elections.

       As we speak there are only 19 black members of the House of Representatives (a population of forty million ought to have about 80 members of the House) and no single black member of the Senate.

        A population of forty million persons is not represented in the US senate. This is real democracy at work, wouldn’t you say so? Democracy indeed!

 

         These issues would seem to be things of the past. But they are still with us. In 2010, in reaction to the election of a black President many states went Republican (that is white). Republican controlled states proceeded to pass laws making it very difficult for black folks, Latinos and poor folks to vote. They have stringent residency requirements, require government issued identification cards, such as driver’s license...many blacks do not drive and do not own cars hence do not have drivers’ licenses.  Several shenanigans were introduced by law all meant to reduce the level of black folks participation in American politics.  As it were, white folks want to always rule nonwhite folks and would do anything to make sure that they are in power and keep Africans out.

      That been said the fact remains that black folk are finding ways to participate in American politics. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Washington DC, Baltimore, Atlanta etc. where there are a concentration of black folks in the inner cities (white folks fled to the suburbs to avoid being close to black folks) black folks now control the city councils. Alas, many inner city dwellers are poor and therefore do not pay much tax hence the city coffers suffer.

       Cities like Detroit are just about broke.  The Republican governor of Michigan and the Republican majority in the legislature passed legislation authorizing the governor to take over cities with financial problems and appoint city managers to run them and in effect bypass the people’s representatives. The city managers are white so in effect black cities are given to white men to run.

        Is this democracy at work or what?  It seems that no matter what black folks do they eventually lose. But the battle continues.

       There are fifty states in the union. There is only one black governor (the governor of Massachusetts).   There are now a substantial number of black representatives in the various state legislatures. There are many black city mayors usually in black cities. There are now many black representatives in city councils across the land. As already observed there are only a few black members of the House of Representatives and no black member of the Senate.

       Despite all the obstacles placed on their path to racial equality, black folks are making their presence felt in American politics.  Black folks are gregarious creatures; they like to participate in the governance of their societies (in some African societies all male members were required to participate in governing the village and town). 

        Given their wish to participate in their governance there is no doubt that black folks will continue making their presence felt in American politics; setbacks probably will always occur but in the end America will become what it is meant to be, a country where all God’s children have civil liberties and participate in  the governance of their country. It may take another one hundred years but surely and steadily the country is moving in the right direction.

 

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

April 29, 2012

ozodiosuji@gmail.com

 

 

 

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