Race and Politics

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Malik Miah

THE MID-TERM NOVEMBER elections brought two surprises according to the pundits: the demise of Newt Gingrich and the likely survival of the Clinton presidency.

A major reason for this striking turn of events had much to do with the Black voter turnout.  It is a sidebar that was briefly commented on before and right after the elections but since has been buried by the impeachment hearings.

Yet the story of the Black voter turnout and its meaning for the Clinton Democrats and GOP has more far-reaching meaning for the future than Newt’s downfall.

We had African Americans and Latinos voting in substantially greater numbers than the population as a whole.  While turnout this year was the lowest since 1942, according to a Washington Post exit poll African Americans and Latinos represented sixteen percent of the voters.  In 1994 it was twelve percent.

Both the GOP and Clinton aggressively wooed the Black vote. Why?  Pure numbers.

“In 1994 Blacks made up 19 percent of Georgia’s voters,” wrote Steven A. Holmes in the November 8 New York Times. “This year they [Blacks] accounted for about 29 percent.  In Maryland, Blacks went from 12.5 percent of all voters in 1994 to 21 percent this year. In Michigan, the Black share of the vote leaped from 13 percent four years ago to 19 percent.  Black turnout also jumped dramatically in North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina and Illinois, providing the margin of victory in several states and gubernatorial races.”

“In `94 it became clear that most Democrats can’t win nowadays without doing well with African Americans,” said Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster.  “Some people had to learn that through hard knocks and bad experiences.”

There are now thirty-eight Blacks in the House, overwhelmingly Democratic, though for the first time ever the GOP elected a Black to a top leadership spot, J.C. Watt Jr. (a conservative former football hero) from Oklahoma.

Overall, the results were as expected: Democrats winning the Black vote by margins of eighty to ninety percent.  Clinton’s strongest supporters are in the Black community.  Toni Morrison, the award-wining novelist, said his mannerisms and ease with Blacks are such that he could be called the first Black president!

The Actual Clinton Record

While it’s true Clinton plays the sax and is right at home visiting a Black church, his real policies have done more damage to the Black community than any president since the victory of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Under the Clinton presidency what we’ve seen is mainly talk about the races getting along.  The reality has been setbacks.  Clinton in 1995 said he would end the “abuses” in federal affirmative action programs.  The courts and state legislatures took this as a green light to weaken or even destroy modest programs.

Clinton did nothing to actively fight Prop 209 in California, or the recently passed anti-affirmative action initiative in Washington State.

On the issue of families and welfare he’s ended programs that, while inadequate, provided some relief for the poorest sections of the population.  Ironically, Nixon, Reagan and Bush—who all promised to end welfare—couldn’t get it done. Clinton not only did it but claimed it as a great accomplishment of his first term in office.

Welfare rolls have indeed declined as more families sleep on the streets or with relatives.

Clinton’s crime record is worse.  He pushed through Congress a crime bill that restricts civil liberties and makes it easier to impose the death penalty.

The facts are clear; so why do so many Blacks support Clinton and even see him as a “brother” under attack by racists?

It is not out of stupidity or ignorance.  There has never been a Black president or a Congress that’s put the interests of all Americans (inclusive of Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans and Asian Americans) on the same level.

This is a concern that Caucasians don’t think about.  For Blacks it is always “which candidate will do us the least damage and maybe some good.” (This skepticism applies to Black candidates as well.)

Clinton is seen as a friend because of the forces attacking him: opponents of every gain won by the civil rights movement.  The fact that a few conservative Blacks stand with these evil elements only makes most African Americans more eager to back a perceived friend.

The strong support for Clinton is thus seen as “using common sense” and doing what’s best for the future of our children, much more than having big illusions in Clinton and the “new” Democrats.  The new middle-class layers in these communities also provide new potential voters and supporters for the two main parties of the rich.

Not surprisingly, moderate Republicans (the Bush brothers for example) are courting conservative Blacks (along with the larger Latino and Asian American bloc of voters) as well. Diversifying their leadership bodies (as the GOP did) is a way to respond to these changes and ensure that their political and economic power is not threatened.

The lack of a viable third party alternative that is antiracist, pro-labor and for fundamental economic change is why pragmatic politics wins out. It means going with “brother” Bill and the Democrats again and hoping for the best.

Malik Miah is an airline union activist, a member of Solidarity in the Bay area and serves on its Anti-Racist Commission.

ATC 78, January-February 1999