Black Politics in the Bush Era: Fallout From 2000 Will Continue

Black Politics in the Bush Era: Fallout From 2000 Will Continue

Black Politics in the Bush Era: Fallout From 2000 Will Continue

Angry over the Florida debacle, African-Americans may retaliate in 2002.


The politics of the black community, so critical to Democratic Party fortunes in the 2000 elections, will also be important if Democrats are to have any chance of taking back the House or Senate in 2002. However, given what happened in November and afterward, black enthusiasm will depend on such factors as the strength of election reform, black receptivity to President George W. Bush’s “outreach” strategy and the level of power blacks feel within the Democratic Party.

Thus far, the resolution of what can only be considered a massive violation of the civil rights of blacks and others has begun by addressing electoral reform legislative proposals. Nearly two dozen such bills have been introduced in Congress and an estimated 800 in state legislatures. At the same time, Bush and the Democratic leadership have begun the difficult dance involved in establishing a commission to develop recommendations. One problem with the proposals at both levels is that they are heavily weighted toward fixing voting equipment and other material aspects of the electoral system. However, many of the problems blacks faced in Florida and in other states stemmed from intentional racial discrimination in the administration of voting systems, a problem that new machines will not fix.

Any proposed legislation should include a prohibition against such intentional discrimination–an example of which was the allegedly unlawful purge of black voters carried out by state officials. Law enforcement officers should be enjoined from setting up roadblocks on Election Day near polling stations, and election officials should be prohibited from engaging in racial discrimination at the stations. Moreover, legislation should require that whatever commission is formed be both diverse by party and representative of those most seriously affected–something included in none of the legislation thus far proposed. Contracts between nongovernmental organizations and the states for the work of revising the electoral system should be given to experts from the affected communities, and matching-funds regulations should include a concentration on modernizing the equipment in the communities most affected by the problems.

The only bill that contains the essence of this “civil rights” approach has been put forward by two Democrats, Senator Christopher Dodd and Representative John Conyers. But for it to have a chance of being considered, the coalition of groups that supports it must mount a formidable campaign to elevate it above other bills that are attracting various constituencies.

Some of the corrective for civil rights violations is contained in a class-action lawsuit brought by the NAACP and other organizations against Florida election officials. Corrective proposals are also contained in the preliminary assessment by the US Commission on Civil Rights, which held hearings in Florida [see John Lantigua, page 11].

Ultimately, grassroots organizations must be mobilized, first to see that corrective proposals are, indeed, included in the legislative proposals, and then to participate themselves in the corrective actions. For example, “Freedom Schools,” so prevalent in the civil rights era, should be created not only to encourage blacks to turn out in big numbers but also to train them to use the new voting equipment and to assert their voting rights. Even with the faith that I place in such actions, I must confess to a cynicism about the likelihood that Republicans will rush to correct the problems in Florida and other states, especially since the reforms would benefit constituencies who are likely to try to vote Republicans out of office.

Bush’s Outreach Strategy

Blacks have failed to warm to Bush despite his continuing campaign of “outreach,” which largely involves symbolic photo opportunities and communications with black leaders. The media have misinterpreted this reticence as an indication of blacks’ fidelity to Al Gore and the Democratic Party. Rather, nothing has changed the view expressed by 90 percent of blacks questioned in a December 18, 2000, CNN/USA Today Gallup poll that the way Bush entered the White House involved the theft of the democratic process itself. Thus, what happened in Florida was a reminder of the civil rights struggle.

Moreover, there is little faith in the black community that Bush has mounted this outreach campaign because of a desire to win them over; rather, they see it as a tactic to derail opposition. My view is that regardless of the fact that most whites feel that the Bush presidency is legitimate–and they do–if most blacks (and a significant number of whites) do not, this issue will continue to plague the credibility of the Bush Administration and provide a subtext to any other difficulties that may arise.

Blacks and Bush’s Governing Agenda

Against this background, the policy differences between Bush and the mainstream black leadership will continue. A Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies survey in September-August 2000 found that blacks’ top concerns are education, healthcare (especially prescription-drug benefits), criminal justice, homelessness and poverty, and Social Security/Medicare. Bush Administration priorities, however, include only modest educational reform, along with massive tax cuts, faith-based initiatives, enhancing the military, promoting oil and gas exploration and rolling back regulations governing environmental and worker protections.

The Bush tax cut would deprive the federal budget of the resources needed to deal with social problems over the long term, while creating added pressure on the budget when it comes time to pay for Bush’s priorities. Studies from the Brookings Institution show that poverty is increasingly concentrated in major inner cities, while the economy is slowing and many poor families are hitting the five-year limit for assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act. Thus, the catastrophe that some analysts predicted at the outset of welfare “reform” may yet occur.

Not all of the Bush agenda runs counter to the interests of the black community. For example, despite the strong objections of most black leaders to faith-based initiatives, many black churches could be attracted by the lure of funding for housing services, education and other needs. The political problem this poses is that the black church has also been the base of black political mobilization. There is a danger that the religious community might become more divided about the wisdom of engaging in political activity if a given administration controls funding for its community-service activities. Here, black leadership may have its hands full preventing black church leaders from joining the charitable choice movement.

Another opening for the Bush Administration involves redistricting. A negative note was struck when the Administration, as well as the Census Bureau, rejected the use of sampling to correct the 2000 census undercount. And there is considerable ambiguity about the manner in which states will use the new census figures on race–especially the multiracial numbers–to draw district boundaries. Nevertheless, blacks and the Republican Party have previously found themselves on the same side of the table on the question of whether to draw as many majority-black Congressional districts as possible. Democrats believe they have the best chance of electing their candidates by distributing substantial portions of the black population into several districts, while most blacks support the creation of the maximum number of majority-black districts. This alliance between black leaders and Republicans will likely blossom again; the question is whether George Bush is able to manage it effectively.

The Democratic Party

The Democratic Party institution becomes an important leadership instrument when Democrats control neither the House nor the Senate. Therefore, it matters that the current role of blacks is minimal. The black turnout rate of 51 percent in the 2000 elections virtually matched white turnout and contributed strongly to Gore’s winning the national popular vote and, had all the votes been counted, probably the state of Florida. There were eight states where the black turnout rate exceeded the percentage of blacks in the total voting-age population and seven states where the black vote contributed the margin of victory of a Senate Democrat.

Given this performance, it would be normal to expect that blacks would be included in the determination of the next party chairman. However, this was not done; instead, the decision was made largely in private by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, House minority leader Dick Gephardt and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, which angered black leaders. The question now is whether the patchwork response to that anger–which finds Maynard Jackson with an influential new role in the leadership and Representative Charles Rangel as chairman of the board of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee–will mollify blacks. At the moment, it’s clear it has not; in February Representative Bennie Thompson wrote a letter on behalf of seventeen other members of the Congressional Black Caucus (excluding its chair) to Gephardt asserting their claim to be included in the party leadership.

More Republican than Democratic seats will be at play in the 2002 elections, and if the black vote performs as well as it did in 2000, Senate control might pass to the Democrats, who need a net pickup of only one seat. Blacks have substantial populations in seven states where there has recently been a strong black turnout and where there will be 2002 contests: Virginia, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Here, the level of Bill Clinton’s popularity may be key. Although he remains popular with blacks, there were some serious lapses in the relationship at the end of his Administration. For example, he did not allow his Justice Department to intervene in Florida to protect black voting rights last November or to attempt to punish the New York City policemen involved in the killing of Amadou Diallo.

The level of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s popularity may also be a factor. The recent scandal involving Jackson may reduce his appeal among white voters, but he experienced a remarkable show of support within the black community. Moreover, the fact that he has fought in support of white working-class issues, as well as the increasing understanding that much of the public exposure of his troubles has been promoted by the same right-wing media and political interests that have opposed those issues, may make it possible for him to rebound even among many whites by the 2002 elections and resume his role as the major mobilizer of Democratic voters.

For Democrats to be at the height of their readiness, these factors must break in their favor. Also, blacks must feel comfortable that their role within the Democratic Party is respected. And whether or not election reform has been accomplished, the anger over Florida may motivate black voters to retaliate by turning out strongly. I would hasten to add, however, that traditionally the most important determinant of black turnout has been the extent to which the community feels that its interests are threatened, and for that reason, the performance of the Bush Administration on many of these issues will determine the urgency of blacks’ determination to fight.

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