Black Gloom Rising

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings has predicted record black voter turnout this November. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has called John Kerry the only "live alternative." Eleanor Norton believes blacks will overwhelmingly support Kerry because they "simply can't stomach" George Bush.

And yet, there's a growing sentiment among a lot of blacks across the country that unequivocal support should not be given to the presumed Democratic Party presidential nominee for nothing. Front-line activists are frustrated because black needs aren't being met and people want to do something about it, says David Covin, president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. Democrats will lose if black voters aren't energized, he adds.

And unless John Kerry acts soon, black voter enthusiasm for him will wane. Al Gore won 90 percent of the black vote in 2000 and black voters could determine who wins Arkansas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana this year. Bush got about nine percent of black votes in 2000, the worst GOP presidential showing since Barry Goldwater's 1964 stand with segregationists on states' rights.

"Neither the Democrats nor Republicans have served black people," asserts Bennett Johnson, coordinator of the National Black Political Coordinating Committee, which includes prominent activists like author and publisher Haki Madhubuti of Chicago-based Third Word Press. Its goal is to flesh out a black agenda, and then publish and distribute a voter guide in book form. The agenda is likely to include a host of topics absent from the current presidential debate: Reparations, AIDS, criminal justice system reform, police brutality and racial profiling.

The desire, say activists, is to push black voters to turn out with a focus on issues and maintain activism, even in non-election years. The off-year activism is a way to promote real change and strengthen political muscle to flex when election time comes, they add.

"Black youth, Latino youth and other progressive youth believe we should have our own independent agenda that speaks to our social, economic and political conditions," says Min. Benjamin Muhammad, of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The group is backed by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and uses top stars to draw youth to voter registration and issue forums.

Min. Muhammad, formerly known as Rev. Ben Chavis, says that while his group wants to focus on long-range solutions, it also must pay attention to the upcoming elections. "The established parties will have a deaf ear -- unless we have a movement strong enough to sway elections and get commitments before the election. Right now, our issues are not even on the table," he says.

So at summits, conventions and "ndabas," the discussions have begun on how best to influence the national debate. The National Black Agenda Convention, held in Boston in March, drew state lawmakers, activists and political stalwarts like Richard Hatcher, the former mayor of Gary, Ind. A National Hip Hop Convention is slated for June 16-19 in Newark, and hopes to inspire young political organizers and voters. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which has registered thousands of young voters, plans major summits July 20 in Boston as the Democrats meet, and Aug. 30 in New York, when the GOP comes to town. Smaller local groups are also meeting, as are advocates for reparations, who are hosting a series of "ndabas," or "big sit-downs," to raise awareness and hash out a common strategy for financial and other redress for slavery.

"What good does it do to have George Bush's cousin in the White House? I don't know what 'Anybody but Bush’ means,'" says Dr. Conrad Worrill, of the National Black United Front, which is organizing and promoting the ndabas. Worrill insists that John Kerry at least endorse H.R. 40, a proposed measure sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) calling for a study of reparations. The bill has languished in congressional committee for a decade. Worrill won't go so far as to say blacks should boycott Kerry or sit out the election, but his terse "Blacks should vote their conscience" is a non-endorsement of the candidate.

Kerry has said he opposes reparations, but supports affirmative action. Worry about his appeal to African-Americans is seeping out from mainstream Democrats.

"It surfaced recently in off-the-record conversations between reporters and some key black Democrats who question whether the party's presumptive presidential nominee is doing enough to energize black voters," wrote DeWayne Wickham, a USA Today columnist, in a May 6 column. "Kerry's closest campaign advisers, these Democrats say, are lily white -- a charge that Kerry's supporters dispute. For weeks now, the Kerry campaign has tried -- and failed -- to put this matter to rest. In March, the Massachusetts senator met with the Congressional Black Caucus and assured its members that they would have input in, and access to, his campaign, the group's chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told me."

Much of Kerry's message at an April 29 National Conference of Black Mayors luncheon could have been delivered anywhere. He talked about jobs, education, and the need for a new direction. There was no focus on hot topics like police brutality and reparations.

That same day grumbling about the lack of diversity at the top of the Kerry campaign was reported. Soon, Kerry added several black staffers, with two at the top level of his campaign. His senior advisor to the Democratic National Committee is an African-American woman. "We knew this (criticism) was going to happen," says a staffer for a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, offering a candid view in exchange for anonymity. Black congressmen have raised the issue, but not much has happened, he says.

"Nobody should mistake our conversation within our party for where our people are on John Kerry," counters Eleanor Norton, delegate to Congress from the District of Columbia. Blacks are drawn to Kerry and the more the GOP attacks him as a liberal, the more attractive he is to blacks, she says. Norton argues that Kerry's campaign is still in the early stages and they understand that no Democrat can win the White House without "hugely disproportionate numbers" of African-American votes.

But blacks will support Kerry, partly because of their feelings regarding Bush, she says. "Blacks are angry at Bush for not even mildly tapping into community concerns. It is African-Americans who see John Kerry as the best bet to beat a man we simply cannot stomach and that man is George Bush," Norton says.

Min. Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, warns against just saying yes to Kerry. "I say to black leadership: Don't herd our people to the polls before you put before Sen. Kerry an agenda that is in the best interest of the masses of our people. If you betray our people and the suffering masses that want relief, then your leadership is finished," he declared May 3 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Farrakhan mostly criticized President Bush for letting neo-conservative influences lead him into Iraq and warned about the need for a just U.S. foreign policy. But the outspoken leader didn't spare Kerry. "How, Sen. Kerry, can you heal the racial divide by sweeping the principle of justice under the rug?" asked the Minister, citing reparations, health insurance, racial profiling and police brutality as issues Kerry could address.

"Kerry will get the majority of the black vote, but the question is how large the turnout will be," says Covin, of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. With black concerns absent from public discourse, Kerry should be pushed to clearly state his positions on racial issues, or else it will affect voter turnout, Covin adds. Black turnout has generally been higher than white turnout since about 1982, noted Covin. Democrats have received the benefits of that turnout, but like Kerry, they've always worried about alienating white voters as well, Covin says. "Democrats are afraid to scare white folks but no Democratic candidate has won a majority of white votes since 1964. They can forget it," he says.

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