Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Role Of The African-American In This Presidential Campaign

I do not know what role African-Americans should play in the current presidential campaign, or even if there is such a thing as "the African American role."  That's part of the question I want to raise.  It's a question about history, about how history will look back at the current election, and how the role of African-Americans might be perceived.


African-Americans make up an enormous portion of the Democratic Party's base.  In so much as there is such a thing as "the African-American vote," it can decide the Democratic primary.  This is not an historical accident.  The Democratic Party took up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's and has been a powerful political voice for African-Americans ever since.  True, African-Americans have enjoyed landmark positions of power in Republican administrations, but these have generally not been elected positions and, more importantly, the racial imbalance between Democrats and Republicans is beyond striking.

The historical narrative is straightforward.  In the 19th-century, the Republican Party was created to further the abolitionist movement.  Until the 1890s, it was the party of civil rights.  It was the only major political voice for African-Americans.  And yet, by the time the 1892 Presidential election rolled around, many had left the party.  On the eve of that election, as the Republican Party was becoming more and more "lily-white," Frederick Douglass published an essay, the title of which inspired the title of this post.  He urged African-Americans to remain loyal to the one and only party that had ever fought for them.  His plea was not successful. and the Republicans lost the White House to Grover Cleveland.  For over half a century after that, African-Americans went without major political representation.  Then, in the 60's, the Democratic Party took up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement, and has carried it--or tried to--ever since.

Today, for all the right reasons, many African-Americans are disillusioned with the system. It could be that President Obama has disappointed a lot of his supporters, but I think it is more the realization that an African-American POTUS is not nearly enough.  The unique problems faced by African-Americans cannot be so easily solved.  Deeper, systemic change is needed.

Many thus call for a revolution, though there are at least two different camps here. The more radical protesters believe that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats nor any other political party is currently able to represent their interests.  They would protest the process completely rather than try to establish a voice for themselves within the party system.  Others believe that Bernie Sanders can represent their interests, even though he has been criticized for putting economic issues ahead of racial issues, and even reducing the latter to the former.  While Bernie is running as a Democratic candidate, he is still an Independent Senator and does not claim allegiance with the Democratic Party.  He criticizes it every chance he can, and refuses to help raise money for down-ballot Democratic politicians.  He thus offers the paradox of an anti-establishment option within the party system.

It goes without saying that systemic change is needed, but that does not necessarily mean anything as drastic as a "revolution." The majority of African-American voters have so far preferred Clinton, so it is likely that they do not trust the anti-establishment approach.  They are not voting for a revolution.  Maybe they prefer Clinton's incrementalist, level-headed approach.  Maybe they simply trust her political acumen and experience more than Bernie's.  They might just like her personality.  There's no reason to assume that African-American voters are putting race issues above any of the other reasons people choose one candidate over another.  That should go without saying.  However, there could be another, deeper, race-related reason for the fact that the majority of African-Americans support Clinton.  It could be that some African-Americans trust Hillary to hold the Democratic Party together more, and they might see that as a particularly important factor for African-Americans.

White Americans tend not to think in terms of how White America is represented in politics, and whether or not White people are given a political voice.  African-Americans have never enjoyed that privilege.  For half a century, they have developed a stronger and stronger political voice through the Democratic Party.  Any threat to that party is therefore a threat to their political voice.  If Bernie Sanders ends up hurting the party, or transforming it in ways that minimize their presence, the consequences for African-American politics is enormous.

It is therefore extremely significant that Bernie's supporters are primarily white.  It is extremely significant that many of Bernie supporters do not respect the political will and acumen of African-American voters.  When Bernie's supporters refer to Southern states like Mississippi and South Carolina as "the Confederacy," they are dismissing the voice of African-Americans.  They are saying that African-American votes don't matter.  They are saying that African-American votes don't exist, because these states where African-Americans dominate the polls aren't actually representative of African-American interests:  They represent the historical forces which have oppressed African-Americans.  In terms of propaganda, I'm not sure what could be more racist that referring to African-American voters as "the Confederacy."

I am not saying African-Americans should reject either of the two strains of anti-establishment sentiment.  I am saying that a lot of people (black, white, or whatever) might not realize what kind of a role the African-American vote might have in this presidential campaign.  If Bernie wins, will it be because African-American voices were heard, or will it be because they were belittled?  If Clinton wins, will it be because African-Americans made it clear that the Democratic Party is their party, and their best chance for political power?

I don't think either Bernie or Hillary should be seen as a savior for the nation in general, or any demographic in particular.  I do think, however, that a strong Democratic Party is the best chance for African-Americans to continue developing their political representation. No matter his weaknesses, it has been thrilling to enjoy Obama's terms as POTUS. It was not a conclusion to the Civil Rights Movement, but a significant step in an ongoing struggle. And that struggle certainly will not end before we can look at the political landscape and see black and white evenly distributed across the spectrum. It will not be over if African-Americans have to wonder if their party will win.  So, as anti-establishment as your sentiments may be, I think you should appreciate the importance of not only respecting the votes of African-Americans, but of promoting the unity of the Democratic Party.  I wish Bernie and his supporters were more on board with this.