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 of another Bush presidency, more blacks than ever are expressing their disillusionment with the Democrats and their ambivalence toward Democratic candidate John Kerry.
That political turnoff is painfully evident in the marked slowdown in the growth 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 mayorships to whites in the 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. 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 percentage if not the majority of some delegations at the Democratic convention, their overall percentage share of delegates actually decreased from the 1996 convention.
Black politicians blame the slide on voter apathy, alienation, inner-city population drops, suburban integration, and displacement by Latinos and Asians. These factors have certainly contributed to the decrease in the number of black elected officials, but the real blame must be dumped 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 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 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 problems of failing inner-city schools, the HIV/AIDS plague, police abuse, crime, drugs, and the high unemployment that have taken a massive toll on poor and working-class blacks. Despite efforts of black Democrats to push for that agenda, it's far less likely to get much attention in this election than it did four years ago.
The Democrats' goal is to beat Bush at any cost. Kerry will not say or do anything to give Republican attack dogs an opening to tar him as a tax-and-spend proponent of big government. Though many black convention delegates privately grumbled about that strategy, they are muzzling their dissent. This is the heavy price they must pay to ensure the unity Democratic leaders are demanding.
Black politicians are also crippled by their near total dependence on the Democratic Party for patronage and support. Despite Obama's instant leap onto the national political stage, despite the fact he is running a so-far-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. Obama must adhere tightly to Kerry's campaign emphasis on national security, the war on terrorism, and military preparedness.
The downward influence of black politics should be a wake-up call for the Democrats. Guilt-tainted appeals for black solidarity and voter registration caravans into black neighborhoods are not going to make blacks dash to the polls to vote for politicians they think will fail them, and that could even include Kerry.
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 have eroded. Obama's rising star is not enough to restore that power. n
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.