More Black Operatives

Recently questions have been raised about the ability and willingness of John Kerry to mobilize African Americans, pointing to the lack of black campaign staffers. To the degree that these questions indicate black politics as usual, this is troublesome to me.
I believe in the ability of regular black people to make our own decisions, mobilize for our own interests. I don't need some supposed "black leader" to tell me how to vote, or tell me what my interests are. Hell, the only leaders I have are my children...wherever they go, I have to follow. Reverend Al Sharpton? Keep him. Reverend Jackson too. So, when I hear someone say that Kerry's campaign isn't black enough, I'm thinking that somebody is whining that they're not getting a cut.

But on the other hand, there are a number of reasons why we should want both major political parties to employ African Americans. And because the Democratic Party is the party of choice for 90 percent of African Americans at the national level, it is particularly important that the DNC hire more African Americans. More African American campaign operatives would be a godsend.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine worked on a high-profile African American senatorial campaign, helping to co-ordinate press events and other activities for the candidate. Even though the candidate was African American, my friend found that not only had he not been scheduled to do press junkets for Tom Joyner or Russ Parr, there were requests for interviews by magazines like Black Enterprise that had also fallen by the wayside. When my girl tried to get interviews with the black media, white campaign staffers resisted. Her white colleagues did not understand why it would be important for the candidate to talk on black media. They felt it a waste of time and effort, largely because they worked on the assumption that supporters of Tom Joyner (or readers of Black Enterprise) don't vote.

She was able to finally push through, but she had to negotiate with the candidate directly (being African American himself, the candidate didn't need that much convincing). While the candidate ended up losing anyway (it is very difficult for African Americans to win state-wide offices in the South) his exposure to black audiences undoubtedly helped him raise money, and helped him to mobilize the vote.

What is unique about this story is the fact that the sister was there in the first place to suggest using the black media, and the fact that the sister actually won out (she's strong, powerful, and fine, so I'm really not surprised). Although the Democratic National Committee has become better about using a variety of routes to get the message out to black citizens, both major parties still have work to do. Schools that exist specifically to train campaign operatives do not have enough black applicants, candidates running for office do not exert enough effort in searching for black talent, and I'm not sure it is in the best interest of "black leaders" like Jackson or Sharpton to create a corps that would inevitably make them redundant.

What would happen if Kerry did more than name a couple of high-level African Americans to his staff? I think he would find that these operatives would have an insight into various sorts of communities that could be helpful to know. He would probably find out, for example, that you could find politically minded black men and women outside of church. I remember when Howard Dean was running for office, and the only time you would see him talking to black people, or talking about black people, was when he was in a church somewhere. Black churches are second homes to a significant number of black men and women, but they are not and have never been the home to all black people. And it is more than a little bit insulting (racist even) to assume that all black people are god-fearing, praise-and-worship folk with nothing but Jesus on their minds.

He would probably find out that black people care about more issues than just Affirmative Action and racial profiling. Undoubtedly these issues are high on most black people's list, but let's be clear: Because of the woeful state of public education in most places where black people live in large numbers, a lot of black boys and girls are not in the position to be able to take advantage of Affirmative Action for college. It was recently revealed in the Detroit Free Press that the Detroit Public Schools have to cut their budget by $250 million, more than 2.5 times what they predicted. Saint Louis and other cities are dealing with similar problems. Though some of these kids will definitely have what it takes to go to Michigan (or Washington University, or Harvard) in the fall, many of them will suffer because of these cuts...making Affirmative Action little more than a pipe dream.

He would find that black people care about foreign policy. As black men and women are disproportionately serving in the armed services, proving their dedication to their country time after time after time, their brothers, sisters, cousins, and parents care about what is going on in Iraq. Black people care about veterans' benefits. Black people care about their health, and are tired of having to decide whether to go to the doctor or buy groceries this month.

Thinking about these issues should make Kerry a better candidate, and should force white campaign operatives to be better at their craft. Because whenever they get ready to write off the black vote, they'd have to contend with dozens of people like my girl.

On a related note, Kerry would also find that our communities are filled with political talent, with men and women of various backgrounds who could change the world through public policy if only given a chance. Many of these men and women could be staffers themselves, and some of them have the character and the intellect to run for office if given a chance and the inkling.

There is a downside, though.

Hiring more black staffers would probably mean that the brothers and sisters (of all shades) running for office would have to do more work. They won't be able to slide a so-called "leader" some money so he can deal with "the black masses." They won't be able to make a campaign stop at a black church and say they've already taken care of their black quota. They won't be able to write much of the black vote off by saying that we don't vote anyway. They won't be able to write off black media opportunities.

But if they fully diversify their staff and hire more black campaign operatives, they will possibly gain the insight they need to not only remake the two-party system (the GOP can make important gains by taking this route as well), but also remake our democracy.

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