Nader Tries to Erase Diversity Doubts

Ralph Nader has a race problem. The presidential candidate for Green Party enjoys strong support among white progressives, and supporters of Al Gore fear that he may draw away enough votes to influence a close election. But among people of color, support for Nader seems remarkably weak.

On the surface, Nader appears to be nearly an ideal candidate to communities of color. Nader, who is of Lebanese descent, offers a platform that would help impoverished African-Americans more than the promises of any candidate in recent memory. Winona LaDuke, his vice-presidential candidate, will almost certainly receive more votes than any person of color on a presidential ticket in American history. Nader's views on race are the most progressive of any presidential candidate who has ever been a significant force in the polls before an election. Yet he seems unlikely to gain more than a few black votes in November.

Here is a candidate who supports reparations for slavery, supports affirmative action strongly, supported the boycott against Coca-Cola for racial discrimination, opposes standardized tests and their discriminatory effects, attacks racial profiling, police brutality and environmental racism, opposes the death penalty and its application against people of color, calls for an end to the drug war which has put so many minorities in jail, attacks the "prison industrial complex," attacks redlining and was personally involved in exposing discrimination by home mortgage lenders, and calls for a "Marshall Plan" for the poor to "correct what has been taken away and is still being taken away from African-Americans and their children in terms of economic and educational opportunity, self-confidence, and overall quality of life." Why, apart from a few prominent endorsements such as Manning Marable and Randall Robinson, is he lacking support from African-Americans?

"Ralph Nader's following is blindingly white," notes Kevin Pranis, an organizer for the No More Prisons project. "People who are the most marginalized are least likely to jump into the Nader campaign." That may be because Third Party politics are regarded as a lark in America rather than part of serious political organizing. Black activists would rather focus on issues that directly concern them than

The lack of black endorsements for Nader may also be because African-Americans are more politically isolated and vulnerable than other groups. African-Americans have established a significant if often disregarded presence in the Democratic Party. Abandoning that power, no matter how limited it might be, for a quixotic Green Party, has limited appeal. Progressive blacks who work within the Democratic Party, such as Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., cannot afford to alienate party officials by endorsing Nader, even if they share his views -- although Jackson did make the unusual step of supporting Nader's inclusion in the presidential debates. Whites can more easily afford to alienate the political establishment by endorsing Nader. If African-Americans are going to stick their necks for someone, it has to be a candidate who they believe sticks out his neck for blacks.

Nader hasn't done that. His rhetoric on race is very traditional: he rarely raises the topic on his own, and instead focuses on universal programs emphasizing class issues.

Activists for women and gays and lesbians have expressed similar concerns about Nader's rhetoric. Nader's apparent dismissal of gay and lesbian issues as "gonadal politics" several years ago has cost him votes, even though his positions favoring gay marriage, non-discrimination, and adoption are more progressive than Gore's stands. Likewise, the National Organization for Women recently attacked Nader for failing to support women's issues, although Nader (unlike Gore) has endorsed the NOW platform and has actively crusaded for economic equality, such as writing the introduction to the book Women Pay More and How to Put a Stop To It.

Most Nader rallies feature audiences that are well over 90 percent white -- not much different than the Republican or Democratic Conventions, but certainly not any better. Charging from $7 to $20 for admission to a political rally probably helps to keep away poorer African-Americans. And the lineup of prominent white men that tour with Nader, ranging from Phil Donahue to Eddie Vedder to Michael Moore to Studs Terkel, didn't help much in luring a diverse audience.

If Nader were a candidate in the Democratic Party, his views on race would undoubtably be cheered by African-Americans and his omissions on the topic would largely go unnoticed. But as a progressive and an outsider, Nader faces higher standards.

Vanessa Daniel, a research associate at the Applied Research Center, recently wrote an article for Colorlines magazine about "Ralph Nader's Racial Blindspot." Daniel observed that "when asked specifically about racial issues Nader is usually quite candid and supportive. But unless asked directly, he seems content to render the topic invisible."

Daniel noted, "In tackling thorny topics such as corporate globalization, environmental abuse and child poverty, Nader often speaks to problems that have their most devastating effects in communities of color. However, he almost never points to the racial dimensions of these issues."

The rhetoric of Nader is so radically different from mainstream candidates that he often seems to be neglecting questions of race. The American political tradition is to segregate discussions of race into a narrow part of the campaign -- to go to a black church and tell the audience what they want to hear, then to abandon those ideas upon entering office. Nader delivers the same attack on corporations no matter where he speaks. And because anti-corporate rhetoric is so rare in American politics, few people see the anti-racist component that Nader believes is an inherent part of his policies.

Smita Khatri, the Race and Gender Justice organizer for the Nader/LaDuke campaign, admits that "race is not his main topic. His main focus is on corporations. But racism is tied in intricately with that."

Khatri emphasizes that the Nader campaign is beginning to address issues of race, something that wasn't possible for a small campaign that in February only had two campaign workers. Khatri was hired in August, and now the www.votenader.org website has an extensive section on racism, noting that "America remains burdened by a racial chasm" and including ten sub-sections on topics such as affirmative action, racial profiling, fair lending, police brutality, fair testing, sentencing disparities and restitution.

The increasing significance of race in Nader's campaign goes beyond his website. "He has made a concerted effort in the past month to address those issues," noted one black University of Chicago student who attended the Oct. 10 rally, pointing to actions such as Nader's recent appearance on Queen Latifah's talk show. In his Chicago speech, Nader directly attacked environmentalism racism: "Do you ever see incinerators in Skokie? No, the incinerators are where the poor, the downtrodden, and people of color are."

Whether Nader will be able to lure a more diverse following isn't just a question of public relations. Reaching out to people of color, who probably constitute a majority of the potential progressive voters, is crucial for Nader's goal of reaching the 5 percent threshold nationwide. But with election day looming ahead, it's not clear if Nader has the time and the resources to convince the skeptics.

John K. Wilson is the author of "How the Left Can Win Arguments and Influence People: A Tactical Manual for Pragmatic Progressives," which will be published in 2001 by New York University Press.

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