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The Building of a Blacker Green Party

You'd think the Green party would be a natural for African Americans. It's the first party since the Black Panthers to argue for slave reparations, and it opposes the war on drugs, wants to see the Confederate flag removed from all public places, and openly pushes for an end to environmental racism. But even the Greens' most successful politicians say the party has failed to convince black voters—so essential for an enduring grassroots movement—to sign up. Last year, 90 percent of African Americans who went to the polls cast ballots for Democrat Al Gore, by far the most faithful turnout of any demographic.

Now, as Green candidates vie for New York City offices, they're trying to bridge the gap between the party they see as most responsive to black concerns, and the black voters who ignore it.

In New York, you can't win an office without significant support from African Americans, and candidates like Paulo Nunes-Ueno know it. Nunes-Ueno, who's running for Brooklyn borough president, admits that the Green Party is largely white, but says it won't always be that way. "I think that that's our primary work right now," he says, "to reach out to people who feel sort of alienated from politics in general because it doesn't work for them."

White-O-Rama: The Green Party’s New York Rally for Ralph Nader last year
Photograph by Michael Kamber
White-O-Rama: The Green Party’s New York Rally for Ralph Nader last year

For the people of South Central, Warren says, the Greens merely meant continued white rule, spiked with granola crunch.

Faces of color have not been absent from the Green lineup. Winona LaDuke, a Native American, shared the presidential ticket with Ralph Nader. The party now has a black woman running for mayor of Syracuse. A handful of Latino Greens hold municipal offices in California, and several African Americans ran for state and national slots last year. Zaki Baruti made a bid for Missouri governor, and Evaline Taylor tried for the U.S. Senate. Jerry L. Coleman competed for a congressional seat from New Jersey, and Donna Warren tried for one from South Central L.A.

For the people of South Central, Warren says, the Greens merely meant continued white rule, spiked with granola crunch. "In my community that's exactly how people saw the Green Party," she says. "They saw them as white, West Side, affluent, tree-hugging radicals. And that's the truth."

Warren, who lost a son in a drug-related shooting and has a class-action suit pending against the CIA for encouraging the crack trade, put a different face on the party. Still, she knows her neighbors won't leave the Democratic fold anytime soon. That's why she stresses the need to cooperate on issues, across party lines. "What my candidacy did was lay a foundation in the African American community," she says. "We're definitely working with whoever in our community. We have to."

The Green Party has long had support from progressive African American intellectuals like Cornel West, Randall Robinson, and Manning Marable. Although they weren't paraded around the way Republicans showcased Alan Keyes and Colin Powell, their presence signaled that at least there are some leaders of color in the party. Some outside statistics show a greater proportion of black voters than white ones backed Nader, but the party itself doesn't keep tabs on the race of its members.

Nader, who has stepped aside from Green politics, says the party can only do so much. "The doors are open, and there's a magnet by the door," he tells the Voice. "It's all up to minorities to walk through."

Some say it's not enough just to open the door, when what's needed is to rebuild the whole house, from the foundation up. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the first African American Green elected to a U.S. city council, argues the party needs to radically rethink its strategy, down to rewriting its 10 core values. Horton Sheff says that no matter how often she raises her voice, the party does not listen. Just look at the party's tenets, she says—a list that includes things like "community-based economics and economic justice," "decentralization," "future focus and sustainability," and so on. "Who do those 10 key values speak to? Middle- and upper-class whites," she says. "We have to go where the people are. No one is going to flock to the Green Party, particularly not in urban centers. We have to get out into the community. Sending mail is not going to do it."

For her campaign, that meant joining with union members and neighborhood activists, translating English flyers into Spanish and Italian, and translating Greenspeak into vox populi. You could lose a lot of people by talking about "environmental justice," or gain their support by asking whether dumps should be expanded or their kids are getting asthma from pollution. "When you speak to people in a language which they understand," says Horton Sheff, "then the key values of the Green Party come alive."

Horton Sheff sees the party as teetering on the verge of becoming a viable option, but only if it grows more inclusive and works with African Americans who already have a community's trust. "Candidates are key," she says. "I think it would be difficult to bring someone in. It has to be a grassroots effort, building up."

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