Black politicians and prospective black politicians face several special problems because of their socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Some of these problems, such as voter disconnection, are particular to politics, while others are found in other areas of African American life in the United States. Problems include racism, community division, a lack of organization, and under-representation.
Accusations of being single issue candidates and of favoring fellow blacks have dogged black politicians for decades. This is partly to do with the civil rights movement and the fight for equality, but is also an internal problem of the black community. This was illustrated by a 2010 New York Times poll of Tea Party voters found that 25 percent of them thought Barack Obama favored his fellow blacks. This compared, according to the New York Times, to a national average of 11 percent.
Obama's success in winning the presidency in 2008 highlighted this problem; however, it also demonstrated how black politicians can break away from this mould. In that election, 96 percent of black voters voted for Obama. He, on the other hand, is also credited with having won over more white and other ethnic minority voters than many of his Democratic predecessors. He achieved this by developing a campaign focused on policies for all voters.
Claudine Gay, of Harvard University, believes the single issue nature of many black candidates has caused some white communities in districts with black politicians to disconnect from politics. She also notes that black leaders do not automatically lead to greater participation by black communities in public life. This level of disconnect implies that some black politicians do not connect with the community enough.
There appears to be a wider disconnect between many ordinary black people and some black politicians, a disconnection with several origins and causes. The majority of black politicians are not from the protest movement of the 1950s and 1960s or the communities that spawn them. They seem to represent a stratification of African American society with the protest movement and the masses coming from lower and poorer classes, while politicians appear to be of wealthier backgrounds.
Adolph L. Reed proposed that the black church actually held back the development of the black community. This is despite the church's importance in the protest movement. Claudine Gay believes this is because of the development of black icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X came at the expense of political organization development. Obama in 2008 demonstrated the benefits of good political organization.
Many black politicians face an uphill struggle to become politicians in the first place. This could be what has led to there being only four black Senators since 1900 and an under representation of Representatives too. This is often mirrored in other walks of life, such as business, where black CEOs make up less than one percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500. This means there is often a lack of role models for black youths and also fewer connections for candidates to exploit. In some fields, rules like the National Football League's Rooney Rule, which guarantees at least one minority candidate an interview for each coaching vacancy, have improved black representation in more visible leadership roles.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, African Americans topped a number of unwanted lists and performed badly compared to other ethnic minorities. In 2007, for example there were three times as many black youths in prison than in college; only 18 percent of blacks made it to college and 70 percent graduated high school. African Americans also had the highest rate of illiteracy throughout the 20th century and the made up the highest proportion of people on welfare in 2007.
The African American community also has, historically, the highest level of political disenfranchisement in America. There are also higher incarceration rates for African Americans; around 30 percent spend at least some time in prison and approximately 13 percent have lost the right to vote. Furthermore, in 2008, 32 percent of eligible African Americans were not registered to vote. When combined with lower connection levels, lower access to advancement, and accusations of racism on polling days, most black politicians operate from weaker bases.