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The impact of that presence isn't yet clear. While Sharpton, along with Howard Dean, has forced the Democrats into taking a more combative stance toward George Bush, his effect on policy has been minimal. That's because, in a White House election year that Democrats view as a must-win, candidates are hesitant to risk turning off swing voters with aggressive talk about race. "They're afraid that they will alienate white supporters by bringing up sensitive issues," says Fletcher. "The problem is that in not bringing up race, there are long-term consequences. The division that exists continues to fester."
Even Dean's inverted Southern strategy has received mixed reviews. Democratic candidates "should be talking about why it's in the interest of white people to talk about race," says Fletcher. "This isn't just a moral question; it has a direct impact."
Others think Dean proposed the coalition as an attempt to duck a divisive debate in favor of more universal class issues. "It's that old strategy of downplaying race and talking about economics," says West. "It's fine, but ultimately it's too reductive."
Indeed, while many of black America's problems do have their roots in class, others beg for an explicitly racial solution. Take the issue of unemployment among young black men, a situation whose demographics are such that it can't be couched purely as a class problem in order to make talking about it more politically palatable. Because of poor reporting and under-the-table work, it's impossible to know how many young black men are out of the labor market. What is knowable is that overall, less than 57 percent of African American adults are currently legitimately employed. In 1999, during the economic boom, the employment rate for black male dropouts under age 25 was 36 percent, some 20 points behind the rates for whites and Latinos (58 and 56 percent, respectively).
"What is so glaring in the data is how concentrated the problem is among African Americans, in a way that is not true of young Hispanic males," says Paul Offner, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. "Let's say we just talk about high school dropouts. The unemployment rate of young black male dropouts is so much worse than the young Hispanic dropouts. Just from the standpoint of employment rates, whites and Hispanics are doing OK. We can talk about policies for everyone, but the reality is, the problem among young blacks is so much worse. It makes the politics that much more difficult."
Indeed, the cautious approach to race in the Democratic primary is right in line with political thinking in Washington. In 2002, when the welfare bill came up for reauthorization, Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, tried to convince legislators to offer a helping hand to poor, noncustodial fathersa group that includes a disproportionate number of young black men. The response was not encouraging.
"To be perfectly honest, there was some sympathy. But I think the lines had already been drawn and people don't want to be sidetracked," says Holzer. "We are talking about young black men, a group who people feel threatened by, rightly or wrongly. Now with the budget situation worsening, people on the Hill are reluctant to spend their chips on a group that is not very popular in America."
Judging by their stump speeches, all of the viable Democratic candidates are using the same math. Since Nixon rolled out his Southern strategy in 1968, Democrats have had a hard time attracting Southern whites. The party's failure reached a new depth in 1988, with the defeat of Michael Dukakis. The GOP's manipulation of the story of Willie Horton, a parole-violating black rapist who had been furloughed under Massachusetts governor and Democratic nominee Dukakis, proved the decisive blow.
Bill Clinton made sure to buck the "nigger lover" mantle by being pro-death penalty and pushing through welfare reform. Near the start of his second term, he did convene a "National Conversation on Race." That effort was pilloried by conservatives for excluding them, and by progressives for being toothless.
"It was a complete failure and an unnecessary failure," says Fletcher. The conversation "was an opportunity to engage in a national dialogue about race and racism, but resources weren't put into it and the scope was limited. The manner in which it was carried out set us back. Everyone lost faith in the process, so now it's become harder to re-engage people."
Finally, from the relative security of his presidency's last month, Clinton fired off a salvo of broad proposals to end the "intolerable gaps" between the races in America. None of the candidates enjoy that level of comfort.
In a year when Democratic voters feel that so much is at stake in the primaries, the last thing the presidential contenders want to do is hand the Republicans the wedge issue of race. But that doesn't mean candidates should abandon all efforts, says West. They just need to become better politicians. "It will have to be couched in such a way that you use the language of public interest and common good," he argues. "It takes a very clever politician to ensure that race is not diluted and yet is still connected to these larger issues."