Features » October 28, 2004
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Despite the claims of some leftists, there’s a dire difference between Bush and Kerry for African-Americans.
Beneath their vast moral and ideological differences, George W. Bush and Ralph Nader have something in common: difficulty attracting black voters. A mid-September CBS News poll of African-Americans found that zero percent support Nader, 8 percent prefer Bush, and 80 percent plan to vote for John Kerry.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, many black Americans see Kerry as “stiff and distant,” and speak about the Democratic contender with “polite reserve, as if he were a distant cousin, more rumor, so far, than actual family relation.”
But Kerry will sweep the black vote because of Bush’s terrible record on issues and an understanding that Nader can only play a spoiler role under the winner-take-all rules of the electoral system. African-Americans also widely understand that Bush owes his current job to the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in 2000.
Beneath the cover of a “war on terror” that has so far killed nearly 150 African-American soldiers in Iraq and against the backdrop of an economic slowdown that pushed 700,000 more blacks into poverty by 2003, the White House has pursued a radically regressive agenda that hurts millions of African-Americans. Bush policies that distribute wealth and power further upward in the U.S. (the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation by far) worsen the plight of a black population already disparately victimized under Bill Clinton by poverty, unemployment, and a large number of related socioeconomic and political maladies. African-Americans are disproportionately reliant on poverty-related government programs—including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, Head Start, Title I School Funding, Pell Grants (college tuition assistance for economically disadvantaged students) and much more—that have been frozen and cut back to make way for other Bush priorities like tax cuts for the rich and imperial wars.
Only one disproportionately black government program has expanded under Bush: mass imprisonment. The black incarceration rate, already astronomical under Clinton, has reached a new pinnacle under Bush. By early 2003, 12 percent of African-American males between ages 20 and 34 were locked up in prisons. The Justice Department’s decision to increase the number of prosecutions for federal drug offenses, combined with recession and program cuts, drive this chilling expansion.
Bush’s talk of an economy that is “strong and getting stronger” is received with cynicism in numerous distressed and isolated black communities, where more than half of adults are now unattached to the labor market and as much as a third of the children live at less than half of the nation’s notoriously low and inadequate poverty level. “Bush is a spoiled rich boy,” one African-American resident of southwest Philadelphia recently told the New York Times, “I don’t see no growth. I don’t see nothing to be stimulated.”
Between January 2001 and January 2004, black unemployment rose by 28 percent. By 2002, that increase had helped push the black poverty rate to 24 percent (twice the white poverty rate) and moved the percentage of blacks without health insurance to 20 percent. In contrast, in the Clinton era, black unemployment and poverty fell.
To make matters worse, the Bush administration intervened (unsuccessfully) against affirmative action at the University of Michigan. It has nominated for the federal bench a large number of right-wingers who oppose core civil rights measures and principles, and appointed conservatives to head key civil rights agencies. Bush has declined invitations to speak at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP) and chose Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to unilaterally appoint an especially notorious racist judge (Charles Pickering) to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last winter.
As bad as Bush’s first term has been for black Americans, a return engagement could well be worse. A second Bush administration will expand the attack on civil rights and public programs—including the public school system and Social Security (the privatization of which is a top second-term Bush priority)—that matter to people of color. The next president is likely to appoint at least one and very possibly two or three Supreme Court justices. And Bush, if elected, can be counted on to fill those critical seats with people who will work, in the words of Ralph Neas, executive director of People for the American Way, “to overturn 75 years of jurisprudence, gutting environmental regulations, abortion rights and a host of civil rights.” For the right, the best scenario would be the appointment of two justices. That would give Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas the ideological soul mates needed to correct the high court’s mistake, among others, of keeping affirmative action alive in the Michigan case.
Those on the left who think there’s just a “dime’s worth of difference” between corporate-Coke Kerry and corporate-Pepsi Bush will not get far with African-Americans this fall. Most issue-attentive blacks know that small variation between the two major-party presidential candidates translates into some very big disparities for people of color and those at the bottom of the nation’s deep race and class wells. They know that one person’s dime’s worth of difference is another person’s dollar’s worth and that that dollar’s worth can be the difference between keeping one’s head above water or not. Kerry might be Coke, but many blacks think, Bush is crack.
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Paul L. Street is the author of Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, a new book about institutional racism in and around Chicago and the nation.