Shadows Wrestle with Race

Determined to serve as an alternative to the politcs-as-usual of the Democratic convention, the Shadow Convention 2000, held in Los Angeles last week, focused on issues many felt were being ignored by the two party system. In particular, organizers and participants felt that issues of race could not be left to the negligence of the Democrats. And though the Shadow did not deal primarily with race, its focus on the growing gap between rich and poor, campaign finance reform and the failed drug war inevitably uncovered many layers of America's racial inequality.

"In a place as diverse as Los Angeles," said Ari Yampolsky, a community organizer for the Shadow Convention, "it is ridiculous to have an event like this about alternative politics, about the distance of the political parties from the American people, and not have that event reflect that diversity."

Race and ethnicity were unavoidable while talking about populations who have not reaped the benefits of the economic boom that the Democrats and Republicans spent so much air time hyping. Statistics verify that poverty in the United States cannot be separated from race. In 1996, 28 percent of Blacks and 29 percent of Hispanics fell under the poverty line, while for whites the poverty rate was only 11 percent.

When talking about the failed drug war, race was equally unavoidable. According to reports by the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy foundation, African Americans comprise nearly two thirds of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons, though their rates of drug use are roughly equal to those of whites. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges 13.4 times more often than whites -- and up to 57 times greater in some states.

Unlike the current mainstream debates about campaign finance reform, the Shadow made sure to introduce the issue of race in relation to campaign funding.

"I think that the Republican party and the Democratic party have put on a show of being inclusive and diverse," said Professor Spencer A. Overton of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, an organization that looks at campaign finance in its relation to civil rights. "But when we look at the power behind the scenes, when we look at the fundraising polls, at the exclusive receptions, those are almost completely white. So the real powers that be are not inclusive racially. They don't look like America."

According to one of the Fannie Lou Hammer Project's reports, 95 percent of federal campaign contributions come from whites. Fewer contributions, Overton explained, mean that politicians give less attention to people of color on issues such as education, criminal justice, health care and gun control.

In a speech to the Shadow Convention on Wednesday, Overton used Los Angeles as an example to bring the statistics closer to home.

"Right here in Los Angeles," Overton told the crowd, "an overwhelmingly white Century City community gave an average of $900 per resident in the last election cycle. In contrast, an average of 97 cents per resident came from predominantly Black and Latino communities like Watts and South Central."

But despite tying all its central agenda to issues of race, the Shadow Convention floor was not awash with faces of color. Many expressed that they had hoped to see more minority participants.

"We were hoping to aggressively include or reach out to poor people and people of color," said Rev. Emory Searcy Jr. of Call to Renewal, a faith-based organization for people looking to overcome poverty. "Those are individuals who we felt needed to be here, because they are the ones who we're speaking about."

Despite some Shadowers' disappointment, they also acknowledged the difficulties of reaching out to minority communities. Searcy suspected that most Shadow participants were of an economic background that allowed them the leisure to attend the Shadow Convention, which started in the middle of the workday and extending into the late evening. Ari Yampolsky, who said outreach was a personal crusade of his, said that organizers made an effort to do outreach in churches but because of logistical reasons success was limited.

Pilar Perez, director of a Santa Monica art gallery that often confronts issues of diversity, was an organizer on the Shadow Convention steering committee. Perez said she tried to make the convention reflect the makeup of Los Angeles.

But among the few local minority participants, some admitted that their communities were altogether unaware of the Shadow Conventions.

"I don't know if the right advertisements weren't made, or if it was a word of mouth thing," said Alexander Plummer of South Central, a largely minority LA neighborhood. "Maybe our communities just don't read as much as they should."

Another major topic of discussion at the Shadows that was tied into race was the marginalization of third parties. Many participants believed that third party candidates, especially Ralph Nader, deserved more attention and minority votes. Other, like Rev. Searcy, expressed the opinion that while our political system is in need of stronger third parties, it is dangerous for minorities to withdraw support from the two party system because that is where the power lies.

"People of color, and people of a lower economic backgrounds, are caught between a rock and a hard place," he said. "Do you use your vote to empower a third party, or do you use it to influence the existing powerful parties?"

Jonathan Kozol, author of "Amazing Grace," shared a similar sentiment. In a panel that discussed the merits of voting for third party candidates, he said that voting outside the two party system was a privilege that many poor minorities did not have.

On the other hand, participants who voiced ambivalence about third party candidates were by no means ruling out their efficacy.

"Third party efforts are here and are not going to go away," said Searcy. "Hopefully there will be a moment sometime in the future that will make a third party significant."

Todd Main, the national field director for the Green Party, said no polls had been done to determine the demographics of their party's supporters. Through petitions, however, he said they found that supporters comprised three main categories: people 55 and older, people between the ages of 35-55 who are disgruntled with the political system and young people.

Despite the differences that emerged through the debates and discussions as to the benefits of voting for third party alternatives there was one point no one seemed to argue: all candidates deserved to be heard.

"Some say that people who give their vote to 'fringe parties' don't need to be heard," said Searcy. "In a Democracy everyone needs to be heard."

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