Deserting the Democrats: Why African-Americans and the Poor Should Make Common Cause in Their Own Party

Article excerpt

It's familiarly argued, particularly by white Democrats who covet black votes, that only major parties can win national power, and therefore African-Americans' interests are best served by continued loyalty to the Democratic Party. Black voters help the Democrats to win elections--sometimes, anyway--and the Democrats claim to be more sympathetic to African-American interests than are the Republicans.

That's been their claim since the thirties, when the Depression, the economic promise of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt's advocacy of their concerns and F.D.R.'s executive order barring racial discrimination in military industries and the federal government lured blacks en masse out of the party of Lincoln. (Roosevelt's hand was forced by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph had threatened to lead 100,000 black demonstrators in a march on Washington if the President did not sign the executive order.) Blacks, new allegiance was cemented by the desegregation of the armed forces and by civil rights legislation pushed by non-Southern Democrats in the administrations of Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.

As integration faltered after 1966, however, and white backlash mounted, the Republicans were permitted to define racial issues, usually by denigrating what they described as black behavior--out-of-wedlock births, crime, welfare dependency--in order to win white political support. Little attention was paid by either party to blacks, economic needs or, in consequence, to those of poor whites. As a predictable result, whites mostly voted Republican, blacks stayed largely with the less hostile Democrats and the poor of both races stayed poor and often got poorer.

Black support for Democrats in recent decades has been a mixed blessing, however, since the party consistently lost presidential elections, not least because African-Americans and their party had become so closely identified with each other. The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry a majority of the nation's white males--who cast a massive number of votes--was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Recognizing this "image" problem, white Democrats have sought to "move to the center," trying to suppress race and placing emphasis on other issues the Republicans have already claimed: the "middle class," tax cuts, crime and the like. Blacks loyal to the party have had little choice but to go along with this Democratic de-emphasis of their interests.

Even this copycat strategy did not work nationally until 1992, however, when a lagging economy, George Bush's political ineptitude and Ross Perot's weird candidacy helped put Bill Clinton in the White House, just barely. By then, both parties had effectively abandoned integration as national policy, beyond what had already been achieved (and even that came under fire in the Reagan/Bush administrations). Neither party pressed hard for further racial gains or pushed for enforcement of what had been done, and both treated racial aspirations largely as a patronage problem to be handled by Cabinet appointments and other political spoils. Most important, neither party was willing or professed to see the necessity to mount an attack on the economic trends that had created the inner-city ghetto and that also were keeping many whites and non-ghetto blacks in poverty and hopelessness.

Thus, today's uneasy alliance between African-Americans and the Democratic Party of Clinton is a world apart from the sixties coalition of non-Southern Democrats and civil rights leaders. Then, a realizable goal--desegregation in the South--was shared on both sides. Today, the alliance stands for little of real benefit to blacks.

For this and other reasons, an early repudiation of the Democratic Party by African-Americans would be in their own and the nation's interest. That would provide a base and a platform for a radical new party that might revive racial integration and enlarge economic opportunity for poor Americans of all races. …