||Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The contrast in the reception that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and President Clinton got when they spoke at the NAACP's annual convention in July couldn't have been more glaring. The delegates listened to Bush's worked over platitudes about racial tolerance with polite skepticism. With Clinton they had a love fest and treated him as a conquering hero. Clinton reminded the delegates that he and Al Gore were joined at the hip for eight years and that if they adored him, they must adore Gore too and do everything they can to help elect him president. But his demand that blacks reflexively back Gore underscores several enduring political dilemmas for black voters.
In every presidential election the past four decades blacks have given the Democratic presidential nominee more than eighty percent of their vote, Clinton included. It mattered little that Clinton's eight year record on social justice and civil rights issues has been marked by a blurry mix of achievement, cautious rhetoric, neglect and political opportunism. And that Clinton spent two elections trying to out Reagan Reagan in a chase to nab defecting white middle-class, ethnic and blue collar voters for the Democrats and distance himself from "special interests" (i.e. women and minorities). Clinton also played two major trump cards to maintain unbending black support. The first was Republican indifference even flat out hostility to blacks. It will take far more than Bush's much ballyhooed talk of diversity and inclusion and the showpiece parade of black, Latino and Asian faces and Colin Powell that they rolled out at the Republican National Convention to overcome that bitter legacy of neglect and rejection. His other ace in the hole is that blacks have no other political choice beyond the Republicans. The talk of forming an independent black political party to challenge the Democrats and Republicans is the stuff of pipe dreams and delusion. Every effort to form such a party has crashed on the hard bedrock of political division, fear and traditionalism. Some black activists claim that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader's credentials as a crusader for the environment and against corporate rapaciousness merits a hard look. But Nader has a badly exposed Achilles heel. He has publicly said next to nothing about racial profiling, police abuse, failing inner-city public schools, the obscene racial disparities in the prison and criminal justice system, the surge of murder violence in poor communities, the dreary economic plight of many young blacks and corporate racism. His failure to speak out loudly on these problems will not help him shed his cloak of invisibility with black voters.
Yet despite these racial pluses for the Democrats a significant number of blacks now call themselves independents. This means that potentially large numbers of black votes could be up for grabs for the Democrats and Republicans this election. History has amply shown that ethnic bloc voting can make or break a candidate, campaign and agenda. In 1960 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. threatened to boycott both the Republican AND Democratic conventions to force a stronger civil rights platform. In 1965 Harlem Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell issued a "Black Position Paper" to the Democrats demanding that they share greater political power with blacks. In 1972 the Black Political Convention forced President Richard Nixon to increase minority business funding, propose non-punitive welfare reform, and strengthen affirmative action programs in the trades, and pushed the Democrats to adopt one of the most liberal activist platforms ever. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition pushed the Democratic Party to support District of Columbia statehood, national health insurance, full employment, political redistricting and affirmative action. In 1996, the National African-American Leadership Summit demanded that Republicans and Democrats endorse an independent black agenda. The social and economic devastation of many poor and working class blacks has raised the political stakes even higher this election. Gore should not have a free hand to say and do as he pleases with black voters as his boss did for eight years under the presumption that their votes are in the bag. And Bush should not get away with spouting photo-op campaign stump slogans about making the Republican party inclusive and then doing nothing to make it a reality.
Black voters can and should lobby, challenge and pressure Bush and Gore to support increased funding for jobs, health, and education programs, scrap the Clinton administration's failed drug policy, and a total overhaul of the racially-warped prison and criminal justice system. This is the price that Bush, and especially Gore, should have to pay for black votes. Blacks should have no dilemma about challenging them to pay that price.
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