Black Voters in 2004

Against the Current, No. 108, January/February 2004

Malik Miah

MOST AFRICAN AMERICANS will continue to vote for the presidential ticket of the Democratic Party in 2004.

This isn’t because the Democrats will defend the best interests of Blacks. The reason is much simpler: George W. Bush and the Republican Party politics are covertly if not openly undermining Black people’s interests. The issue of the war in Iraq and hostility to the views of Third World countries, especially those in Africa, is a factor but only in passing.

Blacks, particularly working-class Blacks who are the majority of the communities across the country, fear the Republican Party and its extreme right wing politics. They see through the high-ranking African-American aides and spokespeople as a smokescreen for policies that unfairly harm Blacks, the working poor and lower middle class.

It is for these reasons that the majority of voting age Blacks will not back Bush or his party in 2004.

Not Simple Lesser Evilism

While this African-American sentiment may sound like “normal” lesser evil politics, it’s not. Blacks have suffered historically from broken promises and elitist governments. They see the two major parties from the standpoint of the narrow vision of ethnic/racial solidarity and anti-racism/discrimination as it occurs in the real world.

Thus polls will show what appears as a contradiction: pride in having so many Blacks in high places that were historically denied to African Americans, along with opposition to the policies of these same officials, who are extremely conservative and support policies that hurt most African Americans.

The best example of this contradictory narrow nationalist sentiment is majority Black support for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas despite his hard right voting record that in the main has hurt African American interests.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also gets very high marks, as the most prominent Black woman in government. Yet Rice is widely seen as the intellectual architect of Bush’s reactionary proclamations, from the “war against terrorism” to support for school vouchers and giving a greater share of the country’s wealth to the top one percent.

Rice is “one of us,” as is Secretary of State Colin Powell. Their conservative politics don’t negate the pride in the fact that a Black woman and man can reach such high places in government.

Ethnic Solidarity and Fear

Narrow nationalism is also why Democratic Presidential hopeful Rev. Al Sharpton gets such a favorable rating in the majority of Black homes, even though he has never held an elected office and is seen by many in the Black community as a “political opportunist” who has taken up the banner first raised by Jesse Jackson more than a decade ago.

Official Washington and media is taking Sharpton seriously too, as he has participated in all Democratic presidential debates. Why not? It gives the public the impression that the Democrats are the party open to all, while third parties are divisive.

Ethnic solidarity of course is not a bad thing. In the context of a rising tide of right-wing ideology domestically and imperialist empire-building abroad, Black voters are justifiably concerned about the future.

While the typical African American is not fluent in American history, most are aware that gains can and have been taken away by the government for the benefit of the dominant ethnic group (whites) throughout American history.

The broadside attacks on affirmative action by the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party and big business media like the “respected” Wall Street Journal (whose editors call it discrimination) is why a great majority of African Americans don’t identify as “conservatives,” or believe in race-neutral rhetoric offered by the upper class part of the community.

They believe (correctly) that even the right to vote could be challenged in the future. What happened in the 2000 presidential elections in Florida is widely seen as proof that the clock can be turned back.

Lessons from History

While it is not likely, for international reasons, that what occurred after the Civil War could ever be repeated again, even most intellectual African Americans are aware history can repeat itself.

Blacks as slaves held some of the most important skilled jobs on the plantations in the South. After the period of Radical Reconstruction was defeated by the 1870s, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist groups led to the end of incipient Black equality.

The infamous Jim Crow segregation laws were the byproduct of white racist terrorism backed by state and federal governments. The former slaves lost their skilled jobs, and eventually the rights to vote and the property they had obtained after the war of emancipation.

How long did it take to end Jim Crow? Almost seven decades, and the battles continue to turn the legal end of segregation to full equality.

The fact that Blacks continue to suffer twice the unemployment rate of the whites (ten versus five percent), and face discrimination in hiring, promotions and education and getting loans to buy homes, makes this self-evident to every working-class Black working at Wal Mart, United Airlines or Ford.

That’s the political, economic and social context of the typical, pragmatic African-American view of U.S. electoral and presidential politics. The eyes of the “talented tenth” or Black upper middle class, of course see it differently, since these layers can integrate and “survive” among the dominant (white) ethnic group; but the average Black family lives with racism every day, adjusts and survives accordingly.

Voting Democratic

In that context only are presidential candidates, state and city politicians viewed and analyzed. The extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party makes the turn of the Democratic Party to the “moderate” right seems to most Blacks as a reason to stay with “the party” and its candidates.

While Green candidates offer a program and perspective that is more in line with the interests of the Black communities, the fact that the Green Party is not in a position to win major offices limits Black support. It’s true as well for other third party or independent initiatives.

It is a vote for lesser evilism, but of a unique type. It is based on fear of the future, and on a history where the pain has been so great with the loss of simple freedoms.

Blacks don’t trust those who talk and act like Bush. They don’t believe African Americans will be equal beneficiaries of his aggressive conservative and warmongering policies. Pragmatism and not ideology is decisive for the Black vote.

This doesn’t negate the importance of presenting an alternative view, in an educational manner, within the Black community. It doesn’t negate the argument in favor of the Greens, and other third party campaigns. But it means recognizing the difficulty of the challenge.

That challenge for left activists in the Black population is to show a way out of this failed political cycle and help build apolitical alternative that can have the success of the mass civil rights movement of the past.

Today no such political movement exists. The future, ultimately, will be decided by the new generations who break with the political approach of fear and lesser evilism and look to third parties and mass protests as the way to end racism, stop the aggressions of the ruling elite and win equality.

ATC 108, January-February 2004