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It's Time to Call for New Black Leadership

For the moment, Reverend Al Sharpton will probably be able to keep his job as self-appointed spokesman for African Americans in the race for Democratic presidential nominee. Although some say he will be hurt in the New York primary by recent Voice articles about his ties to Republican strategist Roger Stone, the most obstinate black voters will vote for him anyway because they still want to be heard. When Larry King asked a dumbfounded TV panel last week why Sharpton would stay in the race, they all overlooked the obvious: The most recent front-runner, John Kerry, has never had to slow down long enough to even acknowledge the devastation in communities of color wreaked by George W. Bush. Since the pundits only talk numbers and not about what candidates are saying, it will be hard to catch anyone asking the likely Democratic nominee about issues such as the loss of jobs, access to decent public education, a national epidemic of police brutality, the domestic threat presented by the USA Patriot Act, increased homelessness since welfare "reform," and the disproportionately high number of black and Latino youth serving in the war in Iraq.

But should Kerry hang in there, the question will remain who he will deal with, having gotten this far without being forced to build support in black communities. Rather than Sharpton, the charismatic black member of Congress from Memphis, Harold Ford Jr., Kerry's national co-chair, may be the one who determines how much time black voters' issues will get. Regardless of the outcome over the next few months, the determination of what is on the Democratic Party agenda will be a game played strictly at the top of the food chain.

illustration: Sam Weber

The problem of black leadership is not Sharpton, but a lack of other voices outside of the presidential contests who could exert enough influence on the Democratic Party to stem the rightward drift that has sacrificed our interests. Sharpton particularly took aim at the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council because the group authored the ape-the-Republicans strategy of recent years.

The dearth of national black leadership in an era of mushrooming media means that Sharpton had to run for president to become a nationally known black leader—and he could be doing so simply for that reason. (This is one case where losing can provide more than a year of steady publicity.) All other black household names these days are folks who turn up on Entertainment Tonight. Maybe that's why rap mogul Russell Simmons sees his fame as a form of "electability" for national black leadership, and on the flip side, intellectual spokesmen such as Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson or former NAACP head Ben Chavis Muhammad have found hip-hop a likely arena for their ideas. Is this our leadership selection process?

If aspiring black (or white) leaders wish to tough it out by trying to get elected somewhere as a route to political change, they will find that redistricting across the country to secure existing Democratic and Republican congressional seats has made it extremely hard to even get in a race. Numbers show that the rate of increase in blacks being elected to office—federal to local—has slowed to the level of 1970.

Sharpton has had his wish and followed the lead of Jesse Jackson into presidential politics, but it's pretty clear that black voters are getting less and less out of this form of political exercise. "Sharpton has gotten an incredibly small share of the black vote compared to Jesse Jackson," says David A. Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES). In 1988, "Jackson basically got all of the black vote and some of the white vote."

For a running-to-lose strategy to result in leverage, he says, "it has to be a credible candidate. They have to bring something to the table. When Jesse ran in 1984 and '88, he brought a lot to the table—he was well liked, he was a very good organizer, and encouraged grassroots organizing all over the country. There was a very substantial increase in the black vote, in large part due to his efforts and the inspiration his candidacy brought. Sharpton didn't have the greatest reputation to begin with and didn't engage in any organization-building. He hasn't done anything to increase black turnout." Well, Sharpton's GOP credit card would explain his failure to make any organizational effort to register African American Democrats.

Indeed, in numbers, Sharpton has brought no more black folks to the polls than the negatively inspiring George W. Bush. While black turnout during the primaries has been good, or "decent," according to Bositis, compared with generally low turnout over the past few years, it doesn't match the numbers when Jackson last ran in 1988. In 2004, the black share of the vote in the Virginia primary was 33 percent, 47 percent in South Carolina, and 23 percent in Tennessee, all significant numbers. According to Bositis, more blacks came out to vote during Jackson's second run—in Tennessee for instance, 576,000 voted in '88, as opposed to 360,000 this year.

It's time to throw out some of these cult-of-celebrity tactics and go back to organizing around the real needs in our communities. If this is a really difficult time to raise funds through weekly meetings, as Sharpton's financial woes at the National Action Network prove, then perhaps the next leaders will take a page from Howard Dean and get 600,000 e-mail contacts for the disgruntled and underserved black body politic.

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