When the 112th Congress was sworn in Jan. 3, it included 43 African Americans, the largest number ever. The 2010 midterm elections were historic for blacks, says UC Irvine political scientist Katherine Tate, as a record 48 African American congressional candidates ran on the official Democratic Party ticket and 14 ran as Republican Party nominees.

In her new book, What’s Going On? Political Incorporation & the Transformation of Black Public Opinion, Tate examines the factors behind this phenomenon, arguing that it stems from a shift in African American political views. Using survey data, she discovered that blacks have softened their far-left stance of the ’60s and ’70s, aligning them with mainstream Democrats and prompting greater party participation. Here, Tate – a professor of African American studies as well as political science – provides a snapshot of her findings.

Q. What’s driving the political centering of African Americans?
A. Since the 1980s, blacks have won a significant share of elected positions as Democrats. As a result, African Americans are looking more to the Democratic Party for policy leadership rather than to civil rights groups, as was historically the norm. The Democratic Party is not as radical as civil rights groups have been on issues blacks care about – such as unemployment, poverty and educational opportunities. Whereas radical African Americans still believe inequality is rooted in institutional discrimination and favor race-oriented policy solutions, the Democratic Party supports a race-neutral, issue-oriented approach. Which course will best benefit blacks at the bottom of society? The debate isn’t settled.

Q. On which specific issues has the African American community altered its position?
A. Black opinion has moderated over the past few decades because the black leadership structure is less radical than it had been. African Americans are less likely to be aggressive on antipoverty measures like welfare. In fact, a national survey conducted in 1996 found that 60 percent of blacks favored welfare reform by limiting participation to five years and ending welfare’s status as a federal mandate. Fewer African Americans now feel that the government should enact programs to assist minorities. Thus, there is less support for a targeted, government-sponsored approach to racial inequality. These are important transformations of black opinion, even as most remain left of center.

Q. What role has President Obama played in this?
Obama is helping shift opinions in the black community to political center. The Democratic Party’s economic agenda is fairly moderate, backing tax cuts for middle-class voters, which can come at the expense of assistance programs for the poor. The president also supports the “war on terror” and keeping troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit with targeted withdrawal dates. Martin Luther King was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, and African Americans were early critics of the Iraq war. Under Obama, they have grown less critical. The Democratic Party attempted to provide more funds for Medicaid programs in the healthcare legislation, but a candid debate about a mandate versus a public option for people at the low end of the income scale was missing, as Obama was forced to negotiate with conservative Democrats to win passage.

Q. What does all of this mean for the future?
A good indication can be seen in South Carolina, where voters in November elected Tim Scott and Allen West, the first black Republicans sent to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction. The Congressional Black Caucus said it would welcome their membership. A bipartisan approach is what many American voters want, and to accommodate them, the Congressional Black Caucus is moving away from its old, combative radicalism and will probably support the bipartisanship necessary in the Obama administration to pass legislation. Generational change is also at work as older African Americans – who had idealistic visions of what government could and should do to assist blacks – are being replaced by younger, more pragmatic ones, including Obama. So we’re in an important transitional moment in African American politics. Black elected officials today are in a strong position to make a difference. Future survey work will show whether African Americans feel their empowerment in American government has bettered community conditions. Notably, in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll taken a year after Obama’s election, twice as many blacks as in 2007 thought their situation had improved.