Red, Black and Blue
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If you squinted, the precincts in East Cleveland on Tuesday looked more like high school sporting events than voting stations. The lines were long, sure, but the mood was light. People gossiped and gabbed while they waited for their cousins to finish voting. They held spots in line so strangers could step out for quick cigarettes. They bumped into old neighbors and caught each other up on family news. One guy saw the whole thing as a chance to pick up dates and business. He flashed his cards to young women as they filed in and invited them to come get their nails done at his salon.
I got calls from P. Diddy, Mary J. Blige – that's my girl – and Spike Lee, one woman joked as she hung out in front of her precinct, smoking in the rain with a gaggle of neighbors. She'd been one of millions targeted by a massive get-out-the-black-vote campaign. From P. Diddy to 50 Cent, artists signed up to give hip hop heads the message in classically blunt language: Vote or Die.
Much of East Cleveland – one of the city's most African American neighborhoods and a heavy target for the voter mobilization effort – had an almost carnival air to it Tuesday. One canvasser strapped an amplified bullhorn to his car's roof and put a drum machine beat behind the pro-Kerry chant he belted as he drove the neighborhood.
In short, people felt good. And why shouldn't they? I was one of the hopeful black fools back in January 2001. I was exhilarated by watching one defiant Congressional Black Caucus member after another refuse to help a chamber full of white men gavel the nation to order – and George W. Bush into his first term. My objection is in writing, Rep. Maxine Waters growled, and I do not care that it is not signed by a member of the Senate. What glorious hubris!
Just weeks later, there was the awesome sight of a CBC delegation marching into the White House to put the new president on notice that they'd be watching him. Black people, it seemed, were going to impact Washington, D.C. in ways America hadn't seen in decades. Sure, we had nursed Bill Clinton's public appearance back to health. But we hadn't played such overt roles in White House politics since the days when civil rights delegations regularly pigeonholed Democratic presidents into stronger, bolder positions.
Bush never invited the CBC back to Pennsylvania Avenue, of course, but that was no matter. Black Democrats and affiliated activists took it to the streets, registering millions of new voters to drive him out. While the Democratic 527 group America Coming Together worked the suburbs, the community revitalization group ACORN led the urban effort. ACORN says it registered more than 1.1 million new voters in low income black and Latino neighborhoods. The group's 10,000-plus canvassers walked the streets of those same neighborhoods on Election Day and knocked on 2.2 million doors, it says, reminding people to vote. That's after making repeated contact with a list of over 1.2 million potential voters in low income, urban areas over the last month.
The campaign was an awesome spectacle of civic engagement, driven by the anger Rep. Waters personified in January 2001. And the votes the effort drudged up are the ones upon which the Democrats hung their hopes, to the last. Exit polls estimate that African Americans made up 11 percent of the electorate this year, up from 10 percent in 2000 (that's a significant jump when you're counting in the millions); 88 percent of it went for John Kerry.
The real impact can be seen in the battleground states. In Pennsylvania, the black vote nearly doubled, from seven to 13 percent. In Michigan, it climbed from 11 to 13 percent. But in Ohio, it only inched up from 9 to 10 percent, and in Florida, it tellingly dropped from 15 to 12 percent. In those states, while the number of black voters surged, the climb was offset by Republican get-out-the-vote efforts in rural, white counties.
And that brings us to the latest tragic turn in black America's tortured saga of electoral politics: In our shining moment on the electoral stage, a year in which we found rarely seen levels of relevance and engagement, we lost.
There probably will be some serious thought within the party about just where the Democrats go from here, says political researcher David Bositis, in a laughable understatement. Bositis tracks electoral politics for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C.-based think tank focusing on African Americans and public policy. They have a problem connecting with very religious people.
Bositis, like many others, noted that GOP strategist Karl Rove effectively countered the new black voters with new evangelical ones – some of whom, in fact, were African American also; Bush got 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, nearly double what he got in 2000.
The black vote's insufficiency in both 2004 and 2000 (blacks were almost a fifth of Gore's voters) is unlikely to prompt any explicit Democratic move away from its increasing dependence on African Americans, in part because overt issues of race and black civil rights played no significant role in voters' minds, Bositis says. What's more sticky is the question of whether the increased black turnout can be sustained. ACORN's D.C. National Director Charlene Sinclair says the group's volunteers are getting back to the streets on Saturday to make sure it can.
"Wouldn't it be nice," she asks mockingly, "if you were a low income person in Cleveland and you could wake up one morning and politicians say, 'Oh, wow, now we have to care about your issues.'" She says the fight to slow the GOP's ascension will take time, as have many previous policy battles ACORN has turned with grassroots organizing before. "You can't expect to turn around a direction you've been heading for decades over night."
So ACORN will be knocking on the same doors it visited last month, prepping black voters for the fight John Edwards foreshadowed in his concession speech. "You can be disappointed," Edwards intoned, "but you can't walk away. This fight has just begun."
"It can't be politics as usual any longer," insists Sinclair. "When you have people register and then come out in those numbers, you actually have the sort of constituency that could make a difference." Indeed, Sinclair says that's exactly the message her canvassers will take back to places like East Cleveland and the message, she hopes, that East Cleveland will send out loud and clear to those planning the future of the Democratic party.