Black, Left Leaders Make Wrong Moves
There was something slightly pathetic about the National Rainbow Coalition (NRC) march last month from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Marietta, Ga., district to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave 30 miles away in Atlanta. The marchers, most of whom were left-leaning followers of NRC President Jesse Jackson, would be considered marginal even in the best of political times. But they seem especially forlorn now. Their approach is not just anachronistic, many argue, but ineffective. Such tactics, grounded in the idea of moral suasion, work best when the moral message is clear. Clearly drawn issues sustain the fervor of protesters and lend their causes greater resonance in society at large. The unambiguous evil of segregation during the '50s, for example, animated the early civil rights movement. But by appropriating much of the colorblind rhetoric of the movement, latter-day conservatives have successfully clouded its message. And the contemporary left has yet to offer any clarifying vision. African-American youth are decidedly indifferent to these civil rights-style affairs. One of the more puzzling realities of the current political scene is that despite the manifest meanness of Republican policies, the left has been unable to fuel any sustained opposition. The right has not had that problem. The April 19 bombing in Oklahoma City has thrown a public spotlight on a burgeoning right-wing militia movement and revealed the wide range of its philosophical appeal. Many discontented white Americans (most of them men) have found some solace on the extreme right. Unfortunately, its appeal is understandable: Changing economic conditions across the globe have ratcheted down the earnings and aspirations of many middle- and working-class white men. And perceived assaults on their cultural status from feminists, multiculturalists and environmentalists have heightened the anxieties of white males. As a result, the soothing messages of the far right promise them a means of reclaiming their eroding power in the world. And on the other side of town, African-American youths and younger activists may shun civil rights-style marches, but they've been energized by the Nation of Islam's (NOI) "Million Man March" scheduled for October. References to the civil rights movement's successes ring hollow to many of these folks. As the number of black elected officials has skyrocketed, black neighborhoods have only suffered accelerated decay. Integration, far from having the noble connotations of the King era, has produced a brain drain, in which the black community's most talented members are siphoned off into predominantly white areas. And the high-profile media chatter about the popularity of white, far-right militia groups has convinced many African-Americans to look more favorably on the NOI as the only group explicitly dedicated to protecting black interests. The small crowd of Jackson supporters marched under the banner, "From Newt's Nightmare to Dr. King's Dream," and they chanted for jobs, affordable health care, social justice and all the other issues that resonate among NRC members. Characterizing the event as the start of a "moral offensive against Gingrich's Contract with America," Jackson said the march was intended to take the battle directly to the enemy. Gingrich shrugged off the protest as "PR baloney," and said that it exploited "what used to be a serious issue." The Georgia legislator said Jackson had "become a parody of himself." Gingrich has a gift for discerning his opponents' weaknesses, and his attack on Jackson echoes much of what is heard on the left. In recent months, Jackson increasingly has come under criticism for exploiting the left to further his personal agenda. Critics charge that Jackson has turned the NRC into a public relations vehicle for his own aggrandizement, thwarting the group's original dedication to political organizing and community activism. Surveying the prospects for change, Jackson urged his supporters to stay the course in the current maelstrom. "When confronted with a similar or worse set of circumstances like apartheid, racism and discrimination, Dr. King fought for jobs, peace and justice, nonviolently with hope, faith and love, along with mass marches, demonstrations, prayer vigils, fasts and mass jailings," he told the gathering. "We march to continue in that great tradition." The march also was intended to churn up publicity for the NRC's policy convention, which took place in Atlanta on May 25-27. "The Rainbow Covenant: Redeeming the Soul of America" was the convention's fanciful title. Several labor, religious and civil rights groups participated, and the Newt world order was roundly condemned. "We do not intend to be ignored, taken for granted, pushed off and exploited any longer," Jackson told his audience in the conference's keynote speech. He announced that the NRC will "launch an intensive voter registration drive in 50 targeted congressional districts where the extremists won with fewer votes than they won with in the previous election." He said his group will register a million more voters and "revive the spirits of the people." The NRC's registration campaign and a proposed program--in conjunction with churches and juvenile court judges--to "reclaim" 100,000 youths through a process of mentoring and nurturing certainly sound impressive. But the conference offered few specific strategies for achieving these goals. Outlining the next steps in the struggle against the raging Republican right, Jackson concluded that through "the use of intense prayer, disciplined mass marches, a revived commitment to voter registration and economic boycotts, we must take our case for a course of humane priorities to the streets, to the legislatures, to the courts and every level of American life." It would be unfair to fault Jackson for his efforts to energize the troops. After all, he is an articulate promoter of enlightened policies who has extensive access to the media. And who among Jackson's critics has come up with a more effective strategy? Still, the "civil rights" flavor of both the NRC march and the convention added a quaint touch that seemed decidedly out of sync with new political realities. These realities were amply illustrated in Washington just a few days before the convention, when the Senate passed a budget plan that would effectively eviscerate federal programs that have served as social safety nets. And the Senate's plan was a pale reflection of a House budget resolution that urged even more drastic cuts in cherished social programs. Much remains to be done before the cuts are actually implemented--and the final bill will still be subject to presidential veto. But the importance of the two budget resolutions should not be underestimated. For one thing, the public reaction to the cuts has not been as negative as many commentators had predicted. Indeed, congressional Republicans, emboldened by the public's presumed support, are urging even more extravagant cuts. The leading GOP presidential candidates--Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Kansas' Bob Dole--are scrambling to move even further to the right. Once considered a centrist, Dole is now embracing many of the right's cherished causes, while Gramm bills himself as "the only true conservative" in the race. Republican leaders hailed the spirit of both resolutions as the beginning of a serious attempt to balance the budget and, perhaps more important, as a blueprint for reshaping the federal government. "What our vision is for the 21st century is a vision of taking power and money and control and influence from this city and giving it back to men and women all across this country," Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) said in a speech before the House vote on the GOP budget plan. Kasich's clever appropriation of populist themes illustrates how effective the Republicans have become at camouflaging their mean-spirited policies as citizen "empowerment." As usual, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) offered an alternative plan that sought to balance the budget by gutting the defense budget and hiking corporate taxes while retaining money for education and social programs. As usual, it was rejected. The difference this time is that, for the first time in the CBC's 24-year history, the group is a minority voice in Congress' minority party. And it is fighting a revanchist agenda that will dramatically alter the role government has played as the custodian of social welfare--a reversal that targets black and poor Americans for the hardest hits. This is an especially cruel reversal of fortune for the caucus, which has lost virtually all of the clout it had taken 20 years to gain. During the early years of the Clinton administration, the group claimed a record 40 members, and its political status was rising. CBC members held the chairs of three standing committees and 16 subcommittees in the House. The caucus was also an important legislative bloc that provided the margin of victory for a number of critical bills. Without the CBC's prodding, for example, it's doubtful the Clinton administration would have taken decisive action on Haiti, and the caucus played a crucial role in ensuring that social spending provisions were included in last year's omnibus crime bill. Members of the group had unprecedented access to the White House, and were increasingly regarded as important confidantes to the president. The 1994 elections obliterated those gains in one fell swoop, and the CBC now finds itself far from the center of political power. Black leadership has vanished from the Armed Services, Government Operations and the Post Office and Civil Service committees--to say nothing of the subcommittee chairmanships on appropriations, small business, education and labor, among others. The CBC's loss of political clout reflects the vulnerability of its constituency to the GOP's budget-cutting agenda. A 1994 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies--a Washington think tank that concentrates on issues concerning the African-American community--shows that CBC constituents are poorer, less educated, less likely to be employed and more dependent on government employment than the average citizen. The caucus understands the threat implicit in that vulnerability. Last month, in an attempt to mobilize vigorous opposition to the GOP's plans, the CBC gathered black legislators from federal, state and local governments across the country at an "Emergency African-American Legislative Summit." "We are not going to simply sit around while the Republicans try their best to turn back the clock on the gains African-Americans have made over the last 30 years," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD), past CBC president and a co-convener of the summit. "This is an outright assault on black America, and we're going to fight back." Much like the participants at the Rainbow Conference, the legislators concluded that voter registration and political coalition-building should be the primary weapons in the struggle against the Republican attack. Conference-goers reportedly placed a premium on nuts-and-bolts proposals and showed little tolerance for the rhetorical flourishes that too often characterize such confabs. But despite the serious quest for an effective response to the GOP assault, the concluding proposals offered nothing novel. While black elected officials and Jackson's NRC called for more activism in the electoral arena, both groups also underscored the need to generate so-called "street heat"--that is, demonstrations and boycotts that take African-Americans' concerns beyond the usual political channels. "The greatest periods of social justice in this country were accompanied by strong social movements," notes Frank Watkins, an NRC official and longtime Jackson confidante. "In fact, without that kind of movement, everything else we do is tentative." In theory, these should be glory days for a new left-leaning social movement. The massive restructuring of the global economy is provoking such widespread economic anxiety that it seems to be following a script that could have been written by any number of left analysts. The acute polarization of the rich and poor in the United States that socialists have long forecast is taking place before our eyes. (Indeed, this gap has become so wide that even the Wall Street Journal's editorial page has begun to complain that the GOP is ignoring income inequality.) The ethnic antagonisms emerging in the wake of the Cold War graphically illustrate the need for the kind of transethnic ideology that could break down the xenophobic responses to these global upheavals. But instead of such a movement we have the GOP's Contract with America. Perhaps the movement will begin when enough people understand the tragic dimensions of that Republican promise. Perhaps not.