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Mounting Peril For Black Politicians

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Top Republican and Democratic officials hailed the appointment of Colin Powell, Condeleezza Rice and Rod Paige as Education Secretary as a big plus for the Bush administration, and an even bigger plus for black officials. The message is that blacks are now major players in American politics. Yet a few days before their appointments, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C. political think tank, in a report that received almost no press attention, noted that the rise in the number of black elected officials has markedly slowed down.

According to the report, the number of black elected officials nationally grew by a paltry 68 positions last year. And these were mostly in lower level, municipal offices. The bulk of black officeholders are still mainly concentrated in five states, Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, and Georgia. Overall, the percentage of black elected officials in relation to all elected officials has remained unchanged since 1996. The slowdown is glaringly evident in Congress. The Senate has only had two blacks since Reconstruction, Massachusetts Republican Ed Brooke and Carol Mosely-Braun, who was defeated in her re-election bid in 1998 after being openly targeted by Republicans. In the House, Congressional Black Caucus membership peaked at 39 members in 1996. And, this may not change any time soon. In California four black House members represent districts in which according to 2000 Census figures Latinos comprise the majority of their constituents. As more Latinos gain citizenship, and their American-born children become eligible to vote, Latino candidates will be viable contenders for these seats.

The erosion in black political strength has hampered the Congressional Black Caucus in its efforts to get Congress and the White House to support increased commerce, trade, and aid to African and Caribbean nations, greater HIV/AIDS funding, strong backing for affirmative action programs, and the passage of tougher anti-racial profiling, and hate crimes laws. Also, it took marches and protests by Jesse Jackson, and lawsuits by the NAACP to focus national attention on the allegations by thousands of blacks of voting fraud in Florida. And even then the Congressional Black Caucus still had to beg, plead, and cajole Attorney General Janet Reno to get her to investigate the charges. The impotence of black elected officials and the cavalier treatment by Democrats of black voters fuels rage and deepens cynicism among many blacks that Democrats care about them only when they need their votes. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1993 on minority redistricting could even further diminish black political clout. The court tossed out districts that had been gerrymandered to preserve black population majorities. These so-called race-based districts were mostly in the South and were deliberately drawn to insure that black candidates would perpetually be elected to Congress. Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney was able to hold her seat against a white challenger after the court wiped out her racially-redrawn district. But black candidates who lack her high-profile visibility, connections, and resources will face a huge uphill battle to get white support.

The added dilemma for black voters is that any future increase in the number of black elected officials must come in majority white districts. Yet, with the exception of Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts and former Connecticut Congressman Gary Franks, both Republicans and both conservatives, who were elected from majority white districts, it is still virtually impossible for blacks to triumph in non-black majority districts. The alarming erosion in black political gains can also be dumped squarely on black voter apathy, alienation, inner-city population drops, suburban integration, and displacement by Latinos and Asians. They have shown a far greater willingness to split their votes more evenly among both Republicans and Democrats than blacks. To overcome these daunting obstacles, civil rights and black political groups must mount and sustain voter mobilization and education drives aimed at increasing the number of black voters. They must pressure Democratic and Republican party officials to mentor, promote and bankroll more black candidates in their bids for national office. In addition, black politicians must fight even harder for the needs and interests of poor and working class blacks, many of whom after the Florida debacle, feel that politics and politicians are hopelessly bankrupt and corrupt, and see no value in voting. They must also expand their agenda to address the needs of Latino and Asian voters. Their support will be absolutely crucial if black politicians expect to hold or win office in the future in districts that were once majority black but are now ethnically diverse.

The appointments of Powell, Rice and Paige are important political milestones for blacks. But even their political success and personal prestige aren't enough to halt the slide in black political strength. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the President of the National Alliance for Positive Action. email:ehutchinson@natalliance.org website: www.natalliance.org

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