When Will Dean Meet-Up in The 'Hood'?

On September 6, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean ran a 60 second ad on South Carolina radio stations that specifically targeted black voters.

Dean ran the ad partly to reach out to blacks, but also to back up his claim that he's the only white presidential candidate that consistently talks about racial issues. That claim stirred much fury among the other white Democratic candidates. They call Dean a liar, and frantically wave their credentials as stout civil rights advocates, and even participants, in past civil rights battles.

But Dean got it right. Though the white Democratic candidates make occasional references to civil rights, they have virtually ignored racial issues in their debates and stump speeches. But despite his claim to be the white point man on race, Dean hasn't done much better. His radio ad is a case in point.

He makes passing mention in it to creating jobs, and he touts universal health care, both issues of crucial importance to blacks. But then he quickly slides back to his familiar Bush bash on the Iraq war and tax cuts. He never explicitly mentions his civil rights advocacy. In fact, he doesn't even utter the words, "civil rights." In his most recent speeches, Dean slams Bush on the environment, farm policy, Iraq, the Middle East and health care, but again he makes no mention of civil rights.

In the Democratic presidential debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus at Morgan State University, a historical black college, Dean had a golden opportunity to tell what he would do about increased urban investment, the HIV/AIDS plague, failing inner-city public schools, racial profiling, affirmative action, the racial disparities in prison sentencing, and soaring black unemployment. These are the crisis problems that sledgehammer black communities.

But Dean and the other Democrats blew the chance. Instead, they pounded Bush on Iraq and finger pointed each other for being less that stout in their support of Israel.

The reason for the big gap between Dean's claim to be the civil rights mouthpiece, and the reality isn't hard to find. During his 11-year reign as Vermont governor, Dean didn't have to deal with gritty urban issues. Vermont is not just one of the whitest states in the nation; blacks make up less than two percent of the state's population. It's also one of the nation's least urbanized.

Dean did not need black votes to win office and stay in office. There simply weren't enough of them. The absence of a sizeable number of black voters in Vermont to woo and court, and his unfamiliarity -- even awkwardness -- with urban issues made him start at the front end of the racial learning curve.

Dean is also popularly identified with gay civil unions. He signed the bill as governor and Vermont is the only state that allows it. And he has a soft position on gun laws. That won't win him many friends among blacks. In a recent Pew poll, blacks were for more likely to oppose gay marriage than whites. And with the high level of gun carnage and mayhem that tears black communities, black leaders scream the loudest for tougher gun laws to stem the violence.

Then there's the Internet. Dean has aggressively used the Internet to whip up the passions and activism of disaffected and hostile Bush opponents, to hammer him on Iraq and his failed domestic policies, and to raise gobs of campaign dollars. This has rocket-launched him from the back of the Democratic pack, and radically changed the way politicians do their political outreach. The problem is that while cyber-connected whites and the top Democrats have gotten Dean's Internet message, blacks and minorities haven't. In a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the digital divide between whites and blacks is still as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Dean unequivocally backs affirmative action, DNA testing for prisoners and expanded prisoner rights, vigorously opposes racial profiling, vows to appoint judges and an attorney general who will enforce and uphold civil rights laws, and strengthen civil liberties protections. His stance on these issues could stir the political passions of many blacks. But Dean has not shouted them at meet-up sessions in African-American communities, at black churches, forums, and community events. Instead, his civil rights positions are quietly tucked away on a page on his Dean for America website.

These issues are also alien territory for the mix of college students, artists, professionals and small businesspersons that pack his meet-up sessions held mostly in white upscale communities. The absence of blacks at these meet-ups is glaring.

Dean has laid firm claim to the title of 'white presidential candidate who will do and say more about civil rights than any of the others.' But that title will mean little until he and his campaign start meeting up in the 'hood'.

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


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