I’m a huge fan of the Netflix TV series House of Cards. Kevin Spacey and the rest of the crew keep me on edge the entire time the show is on. It’s an intriguing portrayal of our nation’s capital, filled with murder, sex and betrayal — yet with every plot twist I’m reminded of how unrealistic the show actually is.
In fact, for me, one of the most unrealistic aspects of the show has nothing to do with intricate plots of revenge or eccentric, power-hungry, business moguls. Instead it has to do with the main character’s race.
Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a long-term congressmen who at the start of the series holds the powerful majority whip position for the Democratic caucus. Underwood hails from South Carolina’s fifth – a sprawling district stretching across much of the border with North Carolina which, in real life, is currently being represented by Republican Mark Mulvaney.
Much of Underwood’s character development pulls from his southern roots. In the first season an entire storyline emerges in which Francis must go home and deal with the locals and their small-town political issues. In the second, Underwood is again reminded of his deep southern ties.
Yet the truth is, in today’s democratic party, Francis Underwood would be nothing short of a congressional unicorn. In the deep southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, Democrats hold nine House seats. Of those nine, eight are occupied by African-Americans, the lone white Democrat being Georgia’s 12th district representative — embattled blue dog John Barrow.
Indeed, the Republican party has all but conquered the present-day south, with only major metropolitan areas and regions heavily populated by people of color tilting blue — And in those locations black representatives reign supreme.
But geography isn’t the only reason that Frank should be black. The other issue has to do with tenure.
Leadership positions are just as much about serving time as they are about capabilities. Committee leadership as well as caucus positions are often determined by who’s been grinding away for the longest time. And in that category again, black representatives set themselves apart.
In a recent piece over at Politico, John Bresnahan calculated that of the 70 members (of both parties) who have been in the House for greater than 20 years, one-fifth are Black Democrats. In fact, greater than one out of every three blacks in the House of Representatives has been there for over twenty years (it’s a whole ‘nother blog post about why this is the case and another one about if this is a good thing or not).
Even historically this wouldn’t have been earth-shattering. Before Republicans took control of the House in 2010, the majority whip from the Democratic caucus was Representative James Clyburn, a black democrat hailing from the sixth district of the great palmetto state.
Geography, tenure, and even recent history make it entirely plausible that the role of Francis Underwood could have gone to someone like Samuel L Jackson or Laurence Fishburne. As for Spacey, with DC’s robust restaurant scene, it would have been just as believable if he had been cast as the head chef of some trendy new BBQ joint.