Can Obama and Black Democrats Deliver The Black Vote?

Before, during, and especially after his rousing Democratic National Convention keynote speech, Illinois legislator Barack Obama was hailed as the shining knight who will energize black voters. But it will take more than a stirring convention speech by the still relatively unknown and untested state legislator to do that. Despite their fear and terror of another Bush presidency, more blacks than ever express their disgust and disillusionment in polls with the Democrats and their ambivalence toward Democratic presidential contender John Kerry.

That political turnoff is painfully evident in the marked slowdown in the growth in the percentage of black elected officials. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, reported in 2002 the lowest annual percentage increase in the number of black elected officials since 1970.

Blacks have lost mayors to whites in majority black cities of Baltimore and Oakland. The number of black state legislators has plummeted by half in the California legislature in the past decade nearly in half. They have lost seats on dozens of local and municipal offices nationwide. The Congressional Black Caucus has been unable to get any substantial legislation through Congress that directly benefits poor and working class blacks. Though blacks held important committee chairmanships, made high profile speeches, and made up a significant percent, if not the majority, of some state delegations at the Democratic Convention, their overall percentage share of delegates actually decreased from the 1996 convention.

Black politicians blame their political slide on voter apathy, alienation, inner city population drops, suburban integration, and displacement by Latinos and increasingly Asians. These factors have certainly contributed to the evaporation in the number, power and influence of black elected officials. But the blame for the political slippage must be placed on black elected officials.

Many black politicians make little or no effort to inform and involve the black public on vital legislation and political actions that directly impact on black communities. Their all-consuming obsession is to elect more black Democrats to office and make sure those in office stay there. They jealously hoard what they view as their sacred right to make all the major decisions on legislation and public policy issues they deem important for blacks.

Black politics has also been enshrouded in media flash and individual political stardom. First there was Jesse Jackson, then Al Sharpton, and now Obama.

They are the titular purveyors of power that blacks depend on to raise and define issues, and prod the Democratic Party to craft an agenda addressing the crisis problems of failing inner city schools, the HIV/AIDS plague, police abuse, crime, and drug destruction, and the high unemployment that have taken a massive toll on poor and working class blacks. Despite the efforts of black Democrats to publicly push for that agenda, it's far less likely to get much attention this election than four years ago.

The Democrats goal is to beat Bush at any costs. Kerry will say and do nothing to give the Republican attack dogs the opening to tar him as a tax and spend big government proponent. Though many black convention delegates privately grumbled about that strategy, and Sharpton obliquely criticized it in his convention speech, they must grit their teeth, and muzzle their dissent. This is the heavy price that they must pay to insure the unity top Democrats absolutely demand.

Black politicians are also crippled by their near total dependence on the Democratic Party for patronage, support, and assorted party favors. Despite Obama's instant leap onto the national political stage, though running so far an uncontested race for the Senate, he has yet to win that seat. If, as expected, he faces a Republican challenger in the fall, he will still need the resources and support of the national Democratic Party to win the race. The race is already costly. He announced that in July that he raised four million dollars in a three-month span. That's a record for an Illinois Senate campaign. As a top Democrat, Obama must adhere tightly to Kerry's campaign emphasis on national security, the war on terrorism, and military preparedness.

The downward shift in black politics should be a wake-up call for the Democrats that guilt-tainted appeals for black solidarity and voter registration caravans and buses into black neighborhoods are not going to make blacks dash to the polls to vote for politicians they feel have, or will, fail them, and that could even include John Kerry.

With the most crucial election in the past half-century only months away, Kerry counts heavily on Jackson, Sharpton, Obama, and the legions of black Democrats to deliver the monster turnout of black voters that he needs to win. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when the power and influence of black politicians has eroded. Obama's rising star is not enough to restore that power.


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