Make Democrats Earn Black Votes

The Democratic Party has been taking Black votes for granted for decades.

BY Laura S. Washington

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African Americans will be a key element in the coming Democratic revival in Washington. It's time for them to extract their pound of flesh.

Since the New Deal, the black American electorate has voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Since the 1960s, no Democrat has won the White House without the black vote. Our voting behavior has been so lopsided that it could lead one to question our collective intelligence, or lack of it.

After Lyndon B. Johnson proposed and got the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, African Americans’ commitment to the Democratic Party made sense. But what has the Democratic Party done for us lately? Are black Americans well served by our slavish devotion to the party?Are our elected officials wise to dance in this one-party minuet? Are we cutting out own throats by cutting our connections to Republicans and third party movements?

Have we sold ourselves too cheap?

Difficult and complex questions, all. Let me propose a suggestion, not a conclusion.

Try this baby out: A couple is in a very heavy and promising relationship, but one of them still isn’t getting the goods. If the sex is good, but you’ve still got issues, what does a mature couple do? Do you split up and assume the next time around will be more fruitful? Does a woman move on, figuring, “Well, maybe the next guy will do a better job of trimming his nose hairs, and make more money to boot?”

Absolutely not! You work it out. Black political leaders can’t afford to be feckless or irresolute. They must instead communicate to a flinty Democratic leadership and apply pressure.

We have the power to extract specific policy initiatives and legislation. African Americans will be a key element in the coming Democratic revival in Washington. It’s time for them to extract their pound of flesh.

John Conyers, forget about impeachment. Here’s one simple, concrete proposal we can shove down the throats of both parties: It’s time to revive the call for Statehood for the District of Columbia. The U.S. Census estimates that there are 550,521 residents of Washington, D.C. About 60 percent are African American. That means D.C. has a larger constituency than Wyoming (are you listening, Dick Cheney?). Yet D.C. is muzzled when it comes to having a full-throated voice in the nation’s capital.

The District of Columbia does elect a representative, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, but has no advocate in the U.S. Senate. If D.C. achieved full statehood, it would elect two senators–most likely black, most likely Democratic. That would be an excellent thing. Sen. Barack Obama needs both the comfort and the competition. U.S. Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) may well be on his way there–but can you imagine the attention and clout that four black senators would draw?

It doesn’t hurt that it was Barack Obama who co-sponsored the No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2005. The proposal, which calls for D.C. statehood, notes that D.C. residents are the only Americans who pay federal income taxes and who have fought and died in every American war but are denied voting representation in the Senate.

Senators can corral more power and respect than just about anyone else in either Washington or the heartland. Black folks need that juice.

It won’t be easy. No one believes the Republicans will quietly abdicate on statehood. If black leaders really push this one, even Democrats will privately scoff and admonish us to be realistic. 

Is it realistic to think we can continue to disenfranchise a half million voters? By golly, would our founding fathers have tolerated such a scenario? Of course, if our founding fathers knew those people were black, they would have gleefully shut the door on D.C. statehood. Back in the day, only property owners could vote–and blacks and women were chattel (so maybe we shouldn’t go there).

Fortunately, the founding fathers’ concept is constantly being updated and revised.

D.C. Statehood could be a litmus test for the Democratic Party’s loyalty to African American voters. Candidates could be screened on where they stand on the question. Hardly a revolutionary concept, but a worthy one.

The perennial conundrum faced by black political leaders is moving past lofty rhetoric and turning it into actual deeds. Again, not easy. 

Only a united political front will get us there. It will call for some serious horse trading. Some will be accused of sectarianism. Black elected officials continually confront this charge because of the nature of their struggle and a lack of resources. They generally represent poorer districts that produce less prosperous war chests.

Still, it’s time. Black folks have vainly supported Democratic Party blunders and charades for half a century. After Nov. 7, the marching orders of the Democratic Party must be in tune with the color of its soul.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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