By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Politics, like capitalism, abhors a vacuum, which is what George W. Bush created for John Kerry weeks before the Democratic National Convention. President Bush declined an invitation to speak before the 95th NAACP convention in Philadelphia, allowing Kerry to waltz in and tell the African-American audience what it wanted to hear. (Bush chose a friendlier convocation hosted by the Urban League.)
In what CNN called a “politically significant speech,” Kerry said he’d be a “uniter” and would not divide the nation “by race or riches or by any other label.” The Kerry campaign also promised to send in teams of lawyers and observers to watch for Election Day problems like the funny business that kept thousands of black votes from being counted in Florida four years ago.
“We will enforce the law,” Kerry told the applauding audience. “We’re not only going to make sure every vote counts, we’re going to make sure that every single vote is counted.”
A day or so before Kerry arrived, NAACP’s chairman, Julian Bond, read the riot act to Bush for not appearing at the convention. Bond called for the president’s ouster, saying that the Republican Party, and by extension the Bush administration, appealed “to the dark underside of American culture, to the minority of Americans who reject democracy and equality.”
Little wonder, then, that “Kerry received virtually a hero’s welcome at the convention,” as CNN put it. But exactly for what reason? Seemingly because Kerry attended the convention and Bush did not. Every president has attended an NAACP convention since the 1930s except Bush, who visited it as a candidate during his “compassionate conservative” campaign days.
Kerry’s appearance, to correct CNN, was more symbolically than politically significant, since Kerry did not offer the assembled blacks anything beyond merely appearing and spouting boilerplate pro–civil rights rhetoric.
And this is why the NAACP has lasted for almost a hundred years. While most of African-American politics in the last 20 years or so is drenched in the charisma of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and now Al Sharpton, the NAACP has persevered as the country’s premier civil rights organization (with a middle-class orientation) because it so deftly plays the game of seeking the recognition of the powers that be. Hence the NAACP’s publicly manifested ire this past week that “Massa” Bush did not grace the “good Negroes” with his presence.
That Kerry could get away with so little before the NAACP — essentially offering no substantial policy initiatives that would benefit African-Americans — underscores the grim reality that 50 years after Brown v. the Board of Education, effective black politics in America has utterly bottomed out. No real agenda drives politics beyond having the Democratic candidate show up. One is hard-pressed to hear most blacks voice any enthusiasm for Kerry the way they did when Bill Clinton ran in 1992.
“There’s no message, no organizing aimed at black people,” says Kevin Gray, a former organizer in Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns and Senator Tom Harkin’s former Southern coordinator. “It’s not like Kerry stands for anything; black people are voting against Bush” but not for Kerry.
Gray, who briefly worked for Al Sharpton’s tragicomic presidential campaign in this past year in South Carolina, believes that Kerry has no message or any kind of organizing to deal with the problems faced by black people in America. Nothing beyond “the basic political pabulum that we’ve been hearing for the last 20 years,” Gray reflects.
Put another way, boilerplate liberalism but no legislative initiative. And why would they need one? Democrats know they will suffer no sanctions from disgruntled blacks.
Bill Clinton proved that when he did not announce any significant urban agenda (read “chocolate” cities as opposed to “vanilla” suburbs). He was, however, provided one by Henry Cisneros, his HUD secretary. Cisneros advocated, among other things, hot-wiring public-housing complexes to the Internet to create “electronic villages” or “campuses for learners.”
This sad state of affairs where black votes are as much as taken for granted by the Democratic nominee is the culmination of 20 years of decline of black politics. In reality, blacks have steadily lost influence and a sense of self-empowerment by ceasing to be organized in any meaningful fashion, having given into pseudo-political mobilization over nonissues such as “atonement” and reparations over the past 10 years. One could even argue that blacks have not been sufficiently organized since the 1960s.
No better example of that decline is the rise of Reverend Al Sharpton, the latest to emerge as what I call the Head Negro in Charge to “advocate” for black America. (I put quote marks around the word advocate to draw attention to Sharpton’s utter failure to do anything other than embarrass himself.) He’s now preoccupied with doing what today’s black leaders are known for: engaging in vanity presidential campaigns, giving speeches and organizing marches over nothing of social or political consequence.
Jesse Jackson, the first post–civil rights HNIC, set this style of politics in motion in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns. He gave a rousing speech at his first convention, and then collected over 1,200 delegates in 1988, as well as 7 million votes (winning the second highest number in the Democratic primary). Yet nothing happened afterward; there was no follow-up to the millions of people who voted for him or helped him organize his campaign.