Democrats and NAACP Need a Makeover

The Democratic Presidential candidates that trooped to the NAACP convention and the NAACP have much in common. They both are in desperate need of a makeover. The Democrats went there to pitch and woo black voters. And they'll need every one they can get. Despite potentially damaging accusations that Bush misled Americans on Iraq's uranium supply, and a sagging economy, polls still show him handily beating any Democratic challenger. Without the solid black vote, that Democrat would have absolutely no chance. In every election stretching back to Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, they have given the Democrats more than eighty percent of their vote. But this time that percentage is less important than how many blacks actually show up on Election Day.

There's much reason to think that far fewer will turn out in 2004. The Democrats have done virtually nothing to ignite fire under blacks. In fact, they've done a few things to douse it. In June, the Democratic National Committee announced that it would lay off ten black staffers from its party headquarters.

The Congressional Black Caucus hit the ceiling, and forced a shamefaced and embarrassed DNC to back down and say the black workers would stay. Yet, the lay-off plan raised a huge red flag that some Democrats may think that their only hope to grab the White House in 2004 is to out Bush Bush.

That means talk and act tough on national security, the war on terrorism, and greater defense spending and preparedness, and adopt bland positions on health care, and social security. It also means say as little as possible about affirmative action, racial profiling, the glaring race iniquities in the death penalty, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health care for the poor, increased spending for failing inner city schools, and keep photo-ops with Jesse Jackson to a bare minimum. The fear is that talking too much about these issues will only stir up white anger by reinforcing the old perception that Democrats tilt toward minorities. Several Democratic presidential contenders didn't even bother to show up at the convention.

The Democrats got away with their say little and do less approach to black voters in 2000 by playing hard on the terror and panic that a Bush win that year stirred in many blacks. The Democrats dangled the nightmarish vision of a Supreme Court packed with such avowed enemies of civil rights and civil liberties as Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas. But when blacks scurried to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore out of fear of a Bush win they gave the Democrats another free ride.

That won't work this time around. According to a survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, fewer blacks than ever label themselves Democrats. And if droves of black voters stay home this election out of apathy and disgust at the Democrat's indifference, the NAACP won't be able to do much to help them.

The reason for that is that the NAACP has spent the better part of the 1990s in a monumental retreat from visible cutting edge social activism. And like the Democratic presidential contenders it has been MIA on the big-ticket issues that hammer the black poor. Just weeks before the NAACP convention, a Children's Defense Fund survey found that the number of black children in "extreme" poverty has hit near record highs. Yet, the NAACP has been great at waging high profile, symbolic campaigns and boycotts against the TV industry, the paucity of black Supreme Court clerks, filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and waging their pet battle to scrap the Confederate flag.

These issues snatch maximum media and public visibility, boost the fortunes of black businesspersons and professionals, and garner much corporate money and favors. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond spent much of his convention address slamming Bush and his brother Florida Governor Jeb Bush for their opposition to affirmative action, but said little about failing inner city public schools. The NAACP said it would soon issue report cards on racial progress in financial services, auto retail, telecommunications, and the advertising and marketing industries, and procurement and vendor relations and foundation and corporate giving. This does nothing to solve the mountainous problems of drugs, crime, and gangs, soaring joblessness among young blacks, and the astronomical black prison incarceration rate.

The Democratic candidates that showed up at the NAACP convention to trawl for black votes fervently hope that the granddaddy of all civil right organizations can deliver that vote. Until the Democrats and the NAACP find their political legs and craft an agenda to confront the problems that tear black communities, that hope will be just that, a hope.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).


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