As whites lose their demographic majority over the next 30 years, is it possible for a new multi-racial coalition to effect a major political realignment?
ost people know Gary, Indiana as the birthplace of pop culture’s most iconic family: The Jacksons. But in March of 1972, nearly 10,000 people gathered in the small, overcrowded gymnasium of Gary’s West Side High School for the National Black Political Convention. During three days of intense debates, delegates hammered out a comprehensive National Black Political Agenda that represented a treatise between black voters and those seeking their votes. The National Black Political Convention was grounded in the belief that any meaningful movement for black advancement must be driven by an allegiance to black interests rather than political affiliation. The choice of Gary was significant. At the time of his election as one of the country’s first black mayors, Richard Hatcher took control of a majority black industrial town deeply scarred by failed economic policies and national indifference. In essence, Gary served as powerful evidence that electoral victories are necessary but insufficient for advancing community.
Inside the convention, pan-Africanists like Queen Mother Audley Moore debated elected officials like Congressman John Conyers and the Stokes Brothers of Cleveland. The two most visible widows of the Civil Rights struggle, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, stood alongside “regular folks” from across the country, as debates raged over the merits of integration and coalition building. Religious leaders like Minister Louis Farrakhan challenged scholars like Vincent Harding on the merits of connecting blacks’ struggle in the U.S. to efforts in other parts of the world. Cultural leaders like Amiri Baraka and Isaac Hayes suggested that the arts could be a powerful medium for articulating a global understanding of justice. Across the boundaries of region, religion, gender, class, and ideology, the National Black Political Convention challenged the monolithic view of black communities that often dominates popular understanding.
Yet with that diversity came intense battles over issue priorities and coalition partners. Roy Wilkins, then the executive director of the country’s oldest civil rights organization The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), criticized the meeting for its purposeful exclusion of white allies. Wilkins believed that omitting whites mirrored the very exclusion that blacks had fought against during the Civil Rights Movement. Other delegates contended that black political growth must be firmly rooted in community rather than party, institution, or alliance:
“The Black Agenda assumes that no truly basic change for our benefit takes place in Black or white American unless we Black people organize to initiate that change…Let us never forget that while the times and the names and the parties have continually changed, one truth has faced us insistently, never changing: Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant….. If we have never faced it before, let us face it at Gary. The profound crisis of Black people and the disaster of America are not simply caused by men nor will they be solved by men alone. These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and of cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates — regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies — can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the systems by which it operates…” -The Gary Declaration: Black Politics at the Crossroads (1972).
No Permanent Friends, Just Permanent Interests
The National Black Political Convention’s rejection of party politics as the solution to black ills has been echoed by many black political organizations. It reflected the Congressional Black Caucus’s longstanding motto that “Black people have no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, just permanent interests.” With the passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 it appeared that the United States had finally moved toward full inclusion. The first act was designed to eliminate racial and gender discrimination and the second was designed to protect black access to the ballot. Yet urban riots in places like Watts, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and Washington, DC were shocking reminders that policy changes are often little more than hollow victories for marginalized communities.
The National Black Political Convention grew out of increasing frustration that the promises of the Civil Rights Movement had not been fully realized. Growing discontent with the Civil Rights Movement also led to the formation of a racially diverse coalition of groups united by their common commitment to community uplift and racial justice. Long before the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. adopted the name for his political organization, The Rainbow Coalition was a multiethnic, community-focused alliance brought together by Fred Hampton, former Deputy Chairman of Illinois’s Black Panther Party. Leaders of Chicago’s notorious Blackstone Rangers and Young Lords worked alongside members of the Patriot Party, an organization of poor whites who migrated from the abject poverty of Appalachia to Chicago’s urban neighborhoods. The Rainbow Coalition brought together blacks, Latinos, Asians, and whites to provide a voice for poor people in Chicago and beyond. What originated as a localized effort to empower poor folks in Chicago became part of a national campaign for self-determination. The coalition partners perceived a common barrier in a political system that denied their humanity and rejected their participation. Just like delegates to the National Black Political Convention, they criticized Democrats, Republicans, and the overall political process for failing to produce sound policies that would encourage America’s economic underclass. The Rainbow Coalition argued that any movement for positive social change must be led by the disenfranchised.
Today, we still confront the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and the question of how to use party politics to achieve community goals. But we do so with a different political and demographic landscape. A mixed-race man is President and America is fast becoming a nation demographically dominated by people of color. Have we reached a moment where it is possible to create the political organizations that the Rainbow Coalition and the National Black Political Convention envisioned? Is it necessary to continue to navigate the traditional two party system that allows Republicans to ignore black realities while Democrats take black votes for granted? Or is it possible to chart a course of action that is issue-based rather than kinship-based? How might the growing ethnic diversity of the United States and growing white disaffection with the political process provide a space for the emergence of a new political movement reminiscent of the 1960’s Rainbow Coalition? To return to the question put forth in Gary, Is it Nation Time?
How the Party of Lincoln Lost Black Voters
In his 2011 bid for the Republican nomination, businessman Herman Cain created controversy by arguing that the black masses have been “brainwashed” into supporting the Democratic Party because they either did not know or did not understand their true interests. When Cain appeared on the CNN program, The Situation Room, he said “Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view…I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative.” Cain’s logic was both flawed and historically inaccurate.
After the 1870 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchising Black men and Lincoln’s 1863 endorsement of the Emancipation Proclamation, those African-Americans who could vote offered their support to the Republican Party. Yet contrary to Cain’s assertion, the GOP of today is a far cry from the GOP of old. In the face of a brewing Civil Rights Movement that threatened to disrupt the status quo, the Republican Party made a concerted effort to distance itself from its traditional voter base and rebrand itself as the party of state’s rights. The state undermined the daily existence of African Americans, particularly those in the South. So, Republicans’s retreat from federal protections of citizenship effectively pushed African Americans out of the party. This shift away from the Republican Party began incrementally after Republican President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 (1948) integrating the U.S. military. Allowing black and white soldiers to fight side-by-side opened up a new path to full citizenship. It provided encouragement that the fight to establish democracy abroad could be experienced here at home. However, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater’s vehement opposition to pending civil rights legislation seemed to seal blacks’ political fate.
According to data compiled by Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee, over 40% of blacks now identify as Independent or Republican; a proportion that is significantly higher than the 1970’s. And various studies conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies show that blacks increasingly view themselves as more Conservative than Liberal based on longstanding religious and moral beliefs. But since 1964, black support for Democratic presidential candidates has hovered at 80% and above.
In addition, the overwhelming majority of black politicians have been and continue to be Democrats. In 2008, Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama garnered 95% of the votes cast by blacks. And in 2010, Representatives Tim Scott (R-SC) and Allen West (R-FL) became the first African-American Republicans elected to Congress in the nearly ten years since J.C. Watts (R-OK) retired.
In many ways, African-Americans seem to face an impossible political dilemma. The party long thought to be the most tolerant of black interests, the Democratic Party, has increasingly been accused of taking black loyalty for granted and failing to support full political incorporation. Similarly, growing Republican hostility toward basic civil rights protections continues to stifle black support. How then should black communities envision their political fate?
Is It Nation Time?
Though the policy needs of black folks and their allies haven’t really changed since Gary, America’s demographic landscape is dramatically different.
A new multi-racial political coalition would seem to be a logical pursuit In 1970, African Americans accounted for 11 percent of the U.S. population, slightly lower than the current proportion of 12 percent. However, the greatest demographic shift has been the increased presence of Latinos. According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, Latinos account for 16.3 percent (over 50 million) of the U.S. population. From 2000 to 2012, the Latino population grew by over 40 percent, dwarfing the increase for other groups. That same Census report also projects that in less than thirty years “people of color” will become the numerical majority in the United States with a sizeable population of blacks, Latinos, and Asians.
However, converting this growing numerical presence into political influence has been an elusive goal. Originally designed to protect African Americans’ access to the political process, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was later extended to enhance ballot access for ethnic language minorities such as Latinos, Native Americans, and some Asian American groups. In spite of this policy change however, Latino voter turnout still lags far behind their population share. In the 2008 Presidential election a record 131 million Americans cast a ballot. According to the Pew Research Center, Blacks accounted for 12.1% of the electorate while Hispanics and Asians occupied 7.4 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. Citizenship status remains a major barrier to Latino voter participation, with non-citizens being ineligible to vote in U.S. elections. In light of this, a number of localities have proposed measures that would allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. But even if we could overcome the barriers of citizenship, language, and political interest and increase voter turnout, how would communities leverage their vote? Frederick Douglass once made the powerful remark that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” For communities of color engaging in coalition the question then becomes what are we demanding and from whom?This question vexed the delegates of the National Black Political Convention too.
The most notable platform item that the National Black Political Convention delegates couldn’t agree on was whether to form an independent third party. Some Pan-Africanists supported an independent party that would allow the community to run candidates who were from the community and thus accountable to the community. More integrationist delegates argued that blacks needed to capitalize on the country’s growing diversity and build a third party coalition across racial, ethnic, and ideological affiliations. Still the majority of delegates believed that a third party would never be successful at the national level.
Today, as the browning of America continues and the overlap of policy concerns becomes more apparent, the chief barrier to third party success at the national level continues to be longstanding institutional norms and mechanisms that have firmly entrenched the two party system. From the exorbitant financial resources needed to wage a viable campaign, to the continued presence of a winner-take-all system enshrined by the Electoral College, third parties face formidable obstacles to transforming politics as usual.
One of the most successful third party candidates to date has been environmentalist turned political activist Ralph Nader. Nader has run for the Presidency six times with his most promising bid coming in 2000. By many accounts Nader was a “spoiler” candidate capable of drawing key votes away from Democratic challenger Al Gore and garnering significant campaign funds from Republican donors interested in shaping the electoral outcome. Despite making it onto the ballot in nearly all fifty states the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) barred Nader from participating in any of the 2000 Presidential debates. As various analysts have asserted, Presidential debates are critical for affirming candidates’ credibility with the American people. Quite simply, candidates who make it to the debates are seen as more viable than those who do not. Thus the exclusion of third party candidates from such debates helps further reinforce the dominance of the two major parties (and two candidates) while limiting independent candidates’ access to the public. In October 2000 the CPD held a nationally televised debate at the University of Massachusetts at Boston between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore. Even though he had a ticket, Nader was physically barred from entering the debate and escorted off the premises by a private security firm hired by the CPD. Amid a flurry of disenfranchisement claims and a highly controversial Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush won the 2000 election by a slim margin of just 537 votes. Nader and his running mate Winona LaDuke finished third with over 2 million votes.
Historically, multi-ethnic coalitions have had the greatest success in challenging two party control at the local and state level. Much like the Tea Party coalition of conservatives that rocked the political scene during the 2010 midterm elections, independent political efforts are most successful when they target specific issues, policies, or campaigns. Though the impact of these efforts often reaches beyond geographic boundaries, America’s unique blend of federalism often necessitates this targeted approach. The delineation of power between the federal government and the states is often murky in areas such as voting, education, economic development, and civil rights. Therefore challenging specific laws and policies at the local/state level thus becomes more effective than attempting to address broad concepts such as civil rights and civil liberties.
Dr. James Lance Taylor, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of San Francisco, documents the historical efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and the campaign to elect Chicago’s Harold Washington in his book Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama. He also examines the targeted approach of Lenori Fulani who in 1988, became the first African American and the first woman to get on the ballot as an Independent candidate in all 50 states and DC. Fulani’s success was due in part to her strategy of appealing to small political parties that were indigenous to particular states rather than pursuing a unified national platform. Fulani had different running mates in different states that emphasized localized issues of importance to the state’s voters. According to Taylor, “this kind of organizing and coalition-building with liberal Whites, youth, Blacks, and Latinos can usurp the national party representatives while putting forth their own agendas, platforms, and candidates that represent their interests.” Here again the emphasis on common interests rather than common affiliation is key. Fulani finished fourth in the 1988 election behind Libertarian Ron Paul.
To the extent that groups can agree on the meaning of “progressive politics,” they must have an institutional mechanism to make it work. Though localized interest based coalitions now offer the most viable institutional approach to pressuring both Democrats and Republicans, the Gary Declaration reminds us of the need to continuously pursue new paths toward full political incorporation:
“At every critical moment of our struggle in America we have had to press relentlessly against the limits of the ‘realistic’ to create new realities for the life of our people. This is our challenge at Gary and beyond, for a new Black politics demands new vision, new hope and new definitions of the possible. Our time has come. These things are necessary. All things are possible.” –Statement from the Gary Black Political Convention (1972)