In the span of twenty-four hours, top Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards uttered two dirty words that have terrified Democratic presidential contenders for more than a decade. The words are race and poverty. The occasion was the fifteenth anniversary of the L.A. riots in late April. The three contenders thundered in speeches at different spots in Southern California that America had failed the poor and especially the black poor.
It's no puzzle why top Democrats have been closed mouth for so long on race and poverty issues. They haven't had to really say or do much about it to keep the black vote. Blacks are the most loyal of Democrat shock troops. In every election stretching back to Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, they have given the Democrats more than eighty percent of their vote. Many blacks loudly grouse that the Democrats practice blatant plantationism with them, namely that they take their votes for granted. A handful of blacks even have made some noise about defecting to the Republicans. But the Democrats are secure in the knowledge that it's just that, talk.
There's another reason the Democrat's have had a blind spot on race and poverty. In two failed presidential jousts with Bush, Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry figured that the only way they could win was to out Bush Bush. That meant talking and acting tough on national security, the war on terrorism, and greater defense spending and preparedness, adopting bland positions on health care, and social security that appeal to the white middle-class, and saying as little as possible about affirmative action, racial profiling, the death penalty, and drug law reform. The Democrats trembled that such talk would only stir up white anger by reinforcing the old perception that Democrats tilt toward minorities. Clinton perfected that strategy in his election campaigns in 1992 and 1996. But Clinton also hinted that a big part of his winning strategy was to shake the Democrats loose from the grip of Jesse Jackson and the civil rights leaders.
Gore and Kerry followed Clinton's political blueprint to the letter. They spent most of their campaigns avoiding appearances in black communities. They were mute on issues such as urban investment, health care for the uninsured, fixing lousy inner-city public schools, racial profiling, affirmative action, the racial disparities in prison sentencing, and the racially marred drug sentencing laws.
Gore and Kerry got away with this blatant racial patronizing by playing hard on the terror and panic that a Bush White House win in 2000 and his reelection in 2004 stirred in many blacks. The Democrats dangled the nightmarish vision of a Supreme Court packed with such avowed enemies of civil rights and civil liberties as Supreme Court justices Anton Scalia, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas. But when blacks scurried to vote for Gore and Kerry out of fear of a Bush win they gave the Democrats another free ride.
Gore and Kerry didn't have to tell what they would do about lack of abortion funding for the poor, drug reform, the glaring race iniquities in the death penalty, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health care for the poor, increased spending for housing, business development and failing inner city schools.
Obama, Clinton, and Edwards have changed up for a couple of reasons. Bush isn't running again. So terrorism won't be the big trump card issue for the Republicans in 2008. Black and Latino political activists have pounded on the Democrats that immigration, inner city poverty, job creation, criminal justice reform, and the plague of dismally under-performing public schools are crisis issues that they can't continue to turn a blind eye too.
The Democrats can't depend on the public's massive dissatisfaction with Bush's failed and flawed Iraq war polices to coast into the White House. The Republicans have tons of campaign cash, many fervent media cheerleaders, and a rock solid conservative vote constituency in the much of the South, and the West. If Hillary is the Democrat's nominee, Jerry Fallwell has publicly vowed to turn the election into a holy crusade against her, and by extension the Democrats. This time around a Democratic presidential contender can't make like Clinton and turn up at black churches, preaching, praying, and belting out "We Shall Overcome," to a gospel beat and with a singing swaying congregation and think that'll be enough to fire up black voters. That alone won't hurdle the apathy, and resentment many blacks still feel toward the Democrats.
While the majority of black and Latino voters will loyally punch the ticket for whichever Democrat eventually gets the nod, if they stay home in droves on Election Day, the Democrats will be in mortal danger of again dumping the election.
The Democrat's race and poverty talk may be little more than crunching the vote numbers and realizing that they really need a big turnout from blacks and Latinos to seal the White House deal. Still, it's refreshing to hear.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October. 323-296-6331