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.”
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 fathers—a 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.”