Running From Race

Democrats Are Ignoring Black Issues in Their Push for the White House. The Surprise Is Who Couldn't Care Less.

Primary season is usually the time when presidential candidates lay out their grand vision for the country. But this year's Democratic primaries have been short on grand ideas, save one—beat George Bush. Nowhere has the dearth of fresh thinking been more evident than in campaign proposals concerning African Americans, Democrats' most loyal voting bloc. Sure, there have been debates sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, and candidates pledging themselves to the presumptive sword hilt of racial justice—affirmative action. Not a single candidate, though, has gone beyond the perfunctory.

Before falling apart in Iowa, Dick Gephardt proposed minority set-asides in federal contracts. Joe Lieberman, in a surreal moment, supported having Congress examine the issue of slave reparations—but that was before Joementum drifted into Joeblivion. Howard Dean also tried to pitch his reverse Southern strategy, in hopes of finally bringing lefties' dream team of blacks and poor Southern whites to fruition. There were also a couple of heated exchanges between Howard Dean and other candidates, most notably Al Sharpton, presumably over race. But ultimately each encounter came much closer to political opportunism than significant comment on race.

If you were hoping to hear revolutionary race policy that evoked the spirit of LBJ, you've likely been disappointed. "I'm still not impressed," says Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. "The party has been running from race . . . and it speaks to the courage of the candidates."

With the Republicans controlling the White House and both branches of Congress, Walters says black Americans have found themselves out of favor in Washington. Census numbers showing that Latinos now make up the nation's largest minority haven't helped. Bush's biggest policy thrust involving minorities, a kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants, shows how politicians' interests have shifted. African Americans' traditional concerns—like poverty and the death penalty—have been pushed to the back of the bus, and no one except Sharpton can afford to touch the burning-hot new ones, like why there are more black men in prison than in college.

Tough—and not likely to change, if only because rank-and-file African Americans aren't necessarily pushing for more. "The main issues are the same for everyone, and at the top of that list is beating George W. Bush," says David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "And it's not like the leading Democrats are all that different from one another."

In the rush to defeat Bush, activists are worried that long-term issues are being shortchanged. Most national questions "have great relevance to African Americans, whether it's the war in Iraq or the economy," says Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum. "But in terms of the peculiar question of race, those sorts of issues rarely make it into the debate. There is still this tendency for people to walk on eggshells."

For a politician brave enough to take them on, there's no shortage of dilemmas facing African Americans, no shortage of social ills that beg for new and innovative policy. Debates about criminal justice, affirmative action, rewarding marriage, and reforming welfare have all erupted during Bush's tenure, and black America's stake in each of these issues is large.

But with Bush-hatred running rampant among Democrats, the preeminent feeling among the party's base seems to be that this is not the year to make a statement. With very little pressure being applied by African American leadership, Democratic candidates have been happy to avoid thorny debates on race and leave innovative approaches for another year.

If Democratic candidates aren't interested in pushing the racial envelope, neither are average blacks, who seem more eager to avenge what happened in Florida during the last election than to spark a debate of particular issues.

Nothing demonstrates black America's current state of mind like its tepid embrace of Al Sharpton. When he first entered the race, Sharpton positioned himself as a man who would force the Dems to do right by black America. "We must not be in a relationship with a Democratic Party that takes us for granted. We must no longer be the political mistresses of the Democratic Party," Sharpton told a Virginia crowd in September. "A mistress is where they take you out to have fun but they can't take you home to Mama and Daddy. Either we're going to get married in 2004 or we're going to find some folks who ain't ashamed to be seen with us."

While Sharpton's acerbic quips have often livened up the primary season, his rhetoric has gained him very little ground with black voters. Look at the heavily black polling so far. In the District of Columbia's nonbinding primary, Sharpton lost to Howard Dean. Then in South Carolina—Sharpton's first real test—black voters showed they were more interested in a viable winner than in advancing their own agenda. Despite spending months registering and canvassing voters there, Sharpton received only 17 percent of the black ballot, and finished with 10 percent overall.

Still, even with Sharpton's credibility recently coming under fire, there are those who are happy to have him in the race. "I'm glad Sharpton's there because he's kept [the Democrats] honest," says Cornel West, a Princeton professor of religion. "They've been so spineless when it comes to the legacy of white supremacy."

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