Find the Issues, Reach the People


You’d think the Green party would be a natural for African Americans. It’s the first party since the Black Panthers to argue for slave reparations, and it opposes the war on drugs, wants to see the Confederate flag removed from all public places, and openly pushes for an end to environmental racism. But even the Greens’ most successful politicians say the party has failed to convince black voters—so essential for an enduring grassroots movement—to sign up. Last year, 90 percent of African Americans who went to the polls cast ballots for Democrat Al Gore, by far the most faithful turnout of any demographic.

Now, as Green candidates vie for New York City offices, they’re trying to bridge the gap between the party they see as most responsive to black concerns, and the black voters who ignore it.

In New York, you can’t win an office without significant support from African Americans, and candidates like Paulo Nunes-Ueno know it. Nunes-Ueno, who’s running for Brooklyn borough president, admits that the Green Party is largely white, but says it won’t always be that way. “I think that that’s our primary work right now,” he says, “to reach out to people who feel sort of alienated from politics in general because it doesn’t work for them.”

For the people of South Central, Warren says, the Greens merely meant continued white rule, spiked with granola crunch.

Faces of color have not been absent from the Green lineup. Winona LaDuke, a Native American, shared the presidential ticket with Ralph Nader. The party now has a black woman running for mayor of Syracuse. A handful of Latino Greens hold municipal offices in California, and several African Americans ran for state and national slots last year. Zaki Baruti made a bid for Missouri governor, and Evaline Taylor tried for the U.S. Senate. Jerry L. Coleman competed for a congressional seat from New Jersey, and Donna Warren tried for one from South Central L.A.

For the people of South Central, Warren says, the Greens merely meant continued white rule, spiked with granola crunch. “In my community that’s exactly how people saw the Green Party,” she says. “They saw them as white, West Side, affluent, tree-hugging radicals. And that’s the truth.”

Warren, who lost a son in a drug-related shooting and has a class-action suit pending against the CIA for encouraging the crack trade, put a different face on the party. Still, she knows her neighbors won’t leave the Democratic fold anytime soon. That’s why she stresses the need to cooperate on issues, across party lines. “What my candidacy did was lay a foundation in the African American community,” she says. “We’re definitely working with whoever in our community. We have to.”

The Green Party has long had support from progressive African American intellectuals like Cornel West, Randall Robinson, and Manning Marable. Although they weren’t paraded around the way Republicans showcased Alan Keyes and Colin Powell, their presence signaled that at least there are some leaders of color in the party. Some outside statistics show a greater proportion of black voters than white ones backed Nader, but the party itself doesn’t keep tabs on the race of its members.

Nader, who has stepped aside from Green politics, says the party can only do so much. “The doors are open, and there’s a magnet by the door,” he tells the Voice. “It’s all up to minorities to walk through.”

Some say it’s not enough just to open the door, when what’s needed is to rebuild the whole house, from the foundation up. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the first African American Green elected to a U.S. city council, argues the party needs to radically rethink its strategy, down to rewriting its 10 core values. Horton Sheff says that no matter how often she raises her voice, the party does not listen. Just look at the party’s tenets, she says—a list that includes things like “community-based economics and economic justice,” “decentralization,” “future focus and sustainability,” and so on. “Who do those 10 key values speak to? Middle- and upper-class whites,” she says. “We have to go where the people are. No one is going to flock to the Green Party, particularly not in urban centers. We have to get out into the community. Sending mail is not going to do it.”

For her campaign, that meant joining with union members and neighborhood activists, translating English flyers into Spanish and Italian, and translating Greenspeak into vox populi. You could lose a lot of people by talking about “environmental justice,” or gain their support by asking whether dumps should be expanded or their kids are getting asthma from pollution. “When you speak to people in a language which they understand,” says Horton Sheff, “then the key values of the Green Party come alive.”

Horton Sheff sees the party as teetering on the verge of becoming a viable option, but only if it grows more inclusive and works with African Americans who already have a community’s trust. “Candidates are key,” she says. “I think it would be difficult to bring someone in. It has to be a grassroots effort, building up.”

Ignoring her advice might prove fatal to a candidate like Jonathan David Farley, an African American mathematics professor who’s running for a Tennessee congressional seat—while he’s out of the country on a Fulbright scholarship. Farley says gaining minority support is just a matter of time. “I’m very confident that once the word gets out about the Green Party, the Green Party’s going to turn black.”

Even if the Greens make a serious effort to reach black voters, some observers think the party will never gain much acceptance. Former presidential candidate Ron Daniels, a black independent, criticized Nader for failing to accept an invitation to speak to Harlem’s Unity Party of New York. Daniels believes African Americans will need an entirely new party to serve their needs.

“My contention is that African Americans are not likely to be involved in the Green Party or any other party where the leadership and base is predominantly white,” he says. “It is not as if people dislike the Greens, but there is a history of people of color feeling that their issues and interests are often relegated to second positions in the left.”

That’s partly because white liberal politics so often come down to matters of pure economics. Howie Hawkins, a Green candidate for the Syracuse city council, criticizes what he calls the party’s strict agenda of fighting corporate control. In an analysis of the post-Nader left, he suggests the candidate could have gotten broader support if he hadn’t shied away from social concerns. “I think Nader lost a lot of votes by his reticence to address these so-called ‘wedge issues,’ ” he writes. “If you stand in the middle of the road, you get hit from both sides.”

At the local level, Green candidates find that their distinctive views set them apart. Julia Willebrand, a mayoral hopeful, says black women have been especially receptive to her because she has been the only one speaking out about undercover policing and the use of public money to construct a new stock exchange.

Other Greens, like Flushing’s Evergreen Chou, who’s aiming for a council seat, lapse into the worst kind of defensive blather. “As you know, I’m kind of a rebel,” Chou says. “I’m in an interracial marriage. My wife is African American and Cherokee. . . . I have friends who are African American. I don’t have to study their issues.”

But studying those issues and caring about them—and not just during elections—may be exactly what the Green Party needs to do in order to bring in African Americans. “It takes a lot of time to build trust,” says national organizer Dean Myerson. “Oppressed people have been used too many times. They don’t just jump every time they see action.”