The Democrats can count on African-American votes, but can they offer them a candidate to beat Bush?
Salim Muwakkil, The Guardian, Jan. 28
After yesterday’s vote in New Hampshire, the Democratic party’s primary caravan will begin developing a more colourful view of the world. The remaining candidates will attempt to grab the attention of the black electorate as they move on from the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire and through the country.
The candidates differ little on what in bolder times were called “black issues”, and none of them has managed to appeal to African-Americans. Enter the Rev. Al Sharpton, the controversial New York-based activist, who joined the race with hopes of galvanising the black vote in much the same way as his predecessor and mentor, the Rev Jesse Jackson, did in 1984 and in 1988.
His efforts have arguably fallen short, with most pundits predicting that Sharpton will tally no more than 15% of the vote. But that’s fine with him. Sharpton’s goal was not to win the nomination. His goal is to parlay black support into bargaining leverage within the Democratic party and to rehabilitate a national image tarnished by the rhetorical excesses of his early days. In that sense, Sharpton has already won.
The black electorate seems decidedly unconcerned with symbolic choices in this election. More than any other quality, they want a candidate who can beat Bush. Because of that, the voters are all over the map. Dean initially attracted many African-Americans with his strident opposition to the Iraq invasion. More than any other group, African-Americans, opposed military action.
Jumping on what seemed an early political bandwagon, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) threw their support at Dean. Other CBC members have spread their endorsements throughout the field. Some strategists argue that these scattered endorsements will reduce the collective power of African-Americans as a voting bloc and lessen the accountability to the black community of whichever candidate is victorious.
“This lack of unity is disastrous for the black community,” said Ron Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland and former adviser to Jesse Jackson. “We are just giving away our collective power by refusing to come to a consensus on a candidate.”
But others contend that this lack of consensus reflects the priorities that are most important to black voters: regime change. Once a candidate has been chosen, the black electorate will be united.
Such rock-solid support leads some critics to bemoan how the Democratic party takes the black electorate for granted. There is some truth in that; where else can African-American voters go? But the situation also reveals how the premises of the civil rights revolution of the 50s and 60s have been incorporated into mainstream political discourse.
Even the Republican party, which owes much of its current vitality to a white backlash from the Democrats’ minority-friendly policies, has been forced to accommodate America’s multicultural reality. The Republican convention of 2000 was particularly notable for its ostentatious display of melanin, even as the inner sanctum of the party hierarchy remains relatively melanin-free. The appointments of two African-Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, to top foreign policy positions in the Bush administration are just two examples of America’s altered political landscape.
But the change hasn’t been quite as drastic as it may seem. Indeed, the semiotics of racial politics have become more subtle, although the reality of black subordination remains the rule. President Bush can travel to Atlanta to pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr one day and the next make a recess appointment of Charles Pickering, a controversial federal judge who is strongly opposed by civil rights groups and was previously previously turned back in the Senate. Bush relentlessly ignores the CBC and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, two groups that truly represent a diverse African-American constituency. But he offers a gracious White House welcome to a group of black ministers he’s wooing for his various “faith-based” initiatives.
Despite considerable agreement with African-Americans on social issues such as abortion, prayer in schools and same-sex unions, Republicans don’t expect many black votes in the general election in November. Four years ago, 90% of black voters supported Democrat Al Gore over Bush, and Republican strategists don’t expect much more in 2004.
But the more that they can wedge away from the Democrats, the better their overall chances. What’s more, by making public gestures of friendship to African-Americans, Bush makes himself less fearful to white swing voters.
The Democrats have failed to ignite any excitement within the black community, although it’s still early. For African-Americans, the most exciting prospect of election 2004 is the defeat of President Bush.