The 2004 Black Agenda

Will Candidates Deliver for the African American Vote?

Dean has built a platform of unification along class-based economic concerns, as opposed to sensationalized, racially based moral concerns. Dean's repudiation of the Southern strategy in the party has appealed to many, though his bungled Confederate flag line put the worst possible spin on his intentions.

"I think that's absolutely the most important thing he could've said," remarked Simmons on the now infamous flag statement, the wording of which Simmons termed clumsy. "I am sorry that Reverend Sharpton, who has been my candidate, attacked him, because I know right now that he's the most progressive of the people in the front."

"This is not about personalities," Jackson told the Voice at the ALC. "This is about a substantive program that can help change the quality of life for the people that we represent." Frank Watkins, Jackson spokesperson, said the congressman's endorsement is based on Dean's early opposition to the war in Iraq, his grassroots support, and his ability to raise money.

Watkins cited Dean's "simple, clear, and positive message" of creating jobs, massively improving education, and providing health care for all Americans as the basis for Jackson's support. "Those are pretty substantive reasons taken together," he said. Jackson is currently putting forward some items addressing issues of concern to black and poor people—heath care, education, and the right to vote—as proposed constitutional amendments rather than as standard bills.

Brooklyn's Major Owens, one of the first CBC members to back Dean, said, "He will go into Washington and be able to not owe the usual people, which means that there'll be a place at the table for more blacks and minorities." But does a seat at the table guarantee one being served a plate?

Dean's message of unification along lines of economic interests may have a downside for African Americans. Watkins himself points out that affirmative action, for instance, brought greater benefits to white women than it benefited African Americans.

"There are many African Americans whose needs are essentially the same as anybody else's," said Chicago's Representative Danny K. Davis. "But then there's a large group of African Americans whose needs go beyond those of the general population, and I don't see a great deal of focus on those needs."

"I'm trying to get a referendum on the ballot in Illinois calling for drug treatment on demand," said Davis, who also cites the reclamation of ex-offenders as a serious issue, as well as federal funding to historically black colleges.

On the issue of quality education for all, some CBC members see the failure of the Bush administration to sufficiently fund its highly publicized "No Child Left Behind" legislation as another situation that must be rectified. "He left it all behind," said Owens. "After getting all that publicity and making it seem that he's the new education president, he set up a budget that didn't have the money he promised within it."

Owens is also appalled at the condition of the country's infrastructure, particularly school buildings, and sees a Roosevelt-type public works program as a plan of action. "Instead of pouring it into Iraq, let's put $87 billion into the economy here, to build highways, to build schools, [with] revenue sharing with the cities and states so that they don't have to lay off people who are teachers or sanitation workers."

A crucial step in obtaining socio-political empowerment is the need to connect with the youth. "We got to get young folks [ages] 18 to 35 involved in the politics through voting because that's the only way," said Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald of California, a supporter of Senator John Kerry. "That's the only way we changed things in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s—and now in the 21st century we have to do it en masse."

Representative Davis's support of fellow Chicagoan Carol Moseley Braun is something akin to a crusade. "Part of the reason to keep supporting her is so that we can bring these barriers down," said Davis. "If not today, 10 years from now so that if my granddaughter wants to run for president she won't be perceived as an automatic loser because she's African American and a woman."

State Representative Alisha Thomas, who was elected to the Georgia State Legislature a year ago at age 23, takes it even further. "I believe that young people are not leaders of tomorrow. We are leaders of today," said Thomas. "When you look at any movement that we've had, including the civil rights movement, it was young folks." She advocates holding leaders to their word. "We don't vote nor do we hold the people that we elect accountable. . . . Until we are held accountable as elected officials, we'll continue to have the same kind of cycles."

In the end, only direct action from the African American community will prevent a black agenda from being swept away by well-meaning but potentially dangerous color-blind politics. "Why should [the candidates] run the risk, in their minds, of alienating another segment of the population in order to deal with specific issues if we're not registered to vote and if we're not organized and we're not raising hell about it," said Davis. "Power concedes nothing without a demand. Even those people that like you."

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