Photo by Joeff Davis
The Democratic convention is over, and there’s little left to say, except: Damn, we’re good. In yet another American political event/performance, black people yet again dutifully did their part. BeBe Winans brought down the house with a gospel rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to kick things off. But as has been the case for at least 20 years, we played our role too well. We gave up too much; if we don’t get any political gains out of this — and we won’t, trust me — we should at least get medals for uncommonly selfless acts in battle.
Yes, it was a battle this time out, what with the ugly prospect of four more years of Bushification stiffening the resolve of the Democrats (finally) to make the ’04 convention the most focused and internally dissent-free of any convention they’ve held in the last half-century. Unfortunately, this often meant appearing as ruthless and militaristic as the Republicans — quashing anti-war sentiment (shared by more than 90 percent of delegates) enough so that it never reached any TV broadcasts, setting up a caged “free-speech zone” outside Fleet Center that crossed the line from irony into a kind of tyranny that, were it not for the tyranny perpetuated daily in Iraq by that country and this one, might have gotten more attention than it did.
But there was plenty of irony-cum-tyranny on display with the black presence — or absence. The contingent that has traditionally been cast as the voice of the Dems’ moral conscience, to say nothing of America’s, was missing in action in a big way last week, just when we most needed to hear it. With very few exceptions, those blacks who took the Fleet Center podium came off as loyal, uncomplaining and unconditionally supportive of a party that for the past 40 years, if that, has been only nominally in favor of policies and platforms that benefit black people. This is not news, I know; Democrats have taken black people for granted for generations now, a distressing arrangement that we seem not to mind. But really — wasn’t somebody besides Michael Moore going to muse aloud about the dire connections between a burgeoning military and our permanent class of unemployed and undereducated black men? Between obscenely excessive spending on military and homeland security and obscenely neglected ghettos and public schools where government spending is not only absentee, it’s become a downright dirty phrase? But when party unity is as big an imperative as it was last week, you can kiss the racial specifics goodbye. Illinois state Senator Barack Obama was hailed as an ascending hero, sure, though only because he was much more eloquent in vetting the unity thing than, say, Janet Reno (plus he’s a lot more telegenic than Reno and just about anybody else on the speaker roster). The African-American Obama — which he is, literally — put the moral stamp of approval on his party’s all-for-one theme, and he elevated it with some personal testimony and belly fire that so many in his party lack. Without even trying, Obama did some important conceptual work for the Democrats; the question, as usual, is whether they will do any work, conceptual or otherwise, for us.
The biggest elephant under the Boston big top, almost bigger than the economy and Iraq, was Florida. The Florida vote theft that turned into the national-election theft in 2000 was the first great crime of the century. But the Democrats dared not pursue the crime or the criminals, because it overwhelmingly involved black voters and was therefore too racial for comfort or political expediency. Yet Florida cost the Democrats everything — the presidency, for starters — and Florida is precisely why Bush is in office now and screwing things up all over the world at an astonishing rate, and why everybody’s blood was boiling last week. But it was boiling only in hindsight, which meant Democrats could not talk about Florida without talking about their complicity in the crime by keeping silent. Only in the midst of iterating anti-Republican peeves did convention talking heads raise the Florida issue, and then somewhat gingerly; besides being generally avoided as a black thing, it was surely too “negative” and potentially divisive to pass muster with DNC officials and scriptwriters, who were determined to stay on that message about a united front.
Though the caution about Florida goes way beyond a strategy of the moment, or even of the last four years, it speaks to an ancient American reticence to truly enforce civil rights protections for blacks, even when such protections are claimed as a part of the Democratic, or Republican, creed. But the reticence this time has had particularly nasty consequences. The impunity of the Florida vote theft, and the Supreme Court coronation of Bush, set the stage for every shameless act that followed — the Patriot Act, the Enron bankruptcy, Cheney’s corporate-clan Energy Commission meetings, the broken global treaties, the bald-faced lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — acts that quickly sealed America’s new image as a brute and a bully at home and abroad. If anybody was going to address the bitter roots of this arrogance, at this convention, it was likely going to be somebody black and angry, but with enough savvy to channel that anger (black anger is inimical to American politics, remember) as moral outrage, preferably in the form of a church sermon. Jesse Jackson was that somebody in 1984, and this year it was Al Sharpton’s turn. For all his recent attempts to soften his image and go mainstream, Rev. Al doesn’t even have to open his mouth to deliver a good jab — his deep-fried hairdo is still a wordless critique of a white power structure that demands conformity at all costs.
It took Sharpton to go off book and get unapologetically black, addressing the empty Reconstruction promise of 40 acres and a mule, criticizing an immigration policy that favors Canadians and Latinos over Haitians. It took Sharpton to blow out the Florida travesty with the force it deserved from all of us four years ago; speaking to the sanctity of the vote, he invoked the blood of a host of civil rights martyrs both black and white. He challenged Bush on his hastily arranged stump speech before the Urban League convention last month, roaring, “Mr. President, read my lips — our vote is not for sale!” The crowd went wild. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer went into a kind of meltdown, muttering non sequitur comments about how this speech was 20 minutes instead of the expected six, how it confused the Teleprompter guy and strayed further from the Message than Kerry would have liked. No real questions from Blitzer or his co-anchors at CNN about what Sharpton actually said or what issues he covered, though that kind of sidestepping is something we’ve all grown to accept in the big media as par for the course, especially post-9/11. Black people aren’t the only ones who’ve tolerated a bum deal for too long.
Though both Sharpton and Obama got pretty good marks and plenty of coverage for their 15 minutes — or 20 — the figures they cut couldn’t be more different. With his smooth good looks and modulated delivery, Obama emerged as my generation’s golden boy, the dark-suited embodiment of black people’s best and highest impulses of inclusion and fairness for all, diversity newly fortified but still digestible. Sharpton is the race’s ragged edge, its propensity to pop off and speak out of turn; he’s the political id that blacks are constantly encouraged to throw away in the spirit of progress and cooperation. But whenever we’re inclined to do that, we’re always reminded that a fighting spirit is exactly what we need to preserve. When Congresswoman Barbara Lee proposed having poll watchers in November — not an idea that originated with her, by the way — the remark was assailed as “asinine” in the pages of this paper. Given what we know now about what happened in Florida, about illegally scrubbed voter rolls and eligible voters being turned away at the polls in an election that hung on a handful of ballots, I would call Lee’s suggestion sensible. Racially discomfited Americans may always be inclined to dismiss the lessons of Florida, but blacks certainly can’t be among them. Al Sharpton may be ready for prime time — he’s already got deals to host a reality show and provide regular news commentary for CNBC — but his job is still to get prime time ready for him.