Prioritize Civil Rights

Democrats need to redress the social and economic inequalities expressed in the United States’ foreign and domestic policies

Salim Muwakkil

When Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry spoke at the Rainbow/​PUSH coalition convention last month, he made few specific references to issues of racial justice: We can’t rest until all Americans, black and white, rich and poor, people of all colors and all backgrounds, truly have the opportunity they need to make the American dream real.”

Those generalities and people of all colors” pieties are about the closest the Massachusetts senator comes to addressing the issues that engage and energize the minority electorate, a fact which could present real problems in such a tight race. USA Today columnist Dwayne Wickham noted in May that some key black Democrats question whether the party’s presumptive presidential nominee is doing enough to energize black voters.”

Kerry placed several African Americans in influential positions within the campaign, leading the Washington Post to note that many accomplished blacks have plum gigs with the candidate. But activists continue to complain that the Kerry crew has failed to connect to the issues of most concern.

African Americans are primarily concerned with double-digit unemployment in their communities, increased incidents of police brutality, an unjust criminal justice system, poor schools and billions of dollars wasted on the war in Iraq. (Some polls registered African-American opposition to the war as high as 70 percent.)

Naming North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as the vice presidential candidate added populist appeal to the ticket. Edwards, the son of a mill worker, found an audience during the Democratic primaries with his evocations of two Americas” — one for the very rich and the other inhabited by everyone else. But it’s unlikely that such rhetoric will be enough to energize black voters.

Still, Kerry does have a record to run on.

During his tenure in the Senate, Kerry scored high marks from the NAACP and the National Urban League for votes that supported the civil rights agenda on many issues — giving rise to his reputation as one of the Senate’s most liberal members. Kerry’s team needs to highlight his laudable record on issues like welfare reform, judicial nominations, and affirmative action and stress that he won plaudits from civil rights groups during an increasingly conservative era.

Many activists are taking action to insure the candidates take a stand on minority issues. In Chicago, for example, a group called the National Black Political Coordinating Convention will present its agenda to both political parties during their nominating conventions. The group also plans to publish and distribute a voter guide — which could prove helpful in honing the Democratic Party’s message to black Americans.

Inspired by the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, the group already has coordinated activities in more than 20 states and plans to finalize its platform during a convention to be held July 17-18. The goal, says co-organizer Bennett Johnson, is to develop an agenda that will be used as a standard, a measuring stick, for black voters to use to assess the viability of federal, state and municipal candidates for political office.”

Johnson, who participated in the 72 convention, says this year’s effort is more results-oriented: We want to be able to say this is what black folks really need.”

With professionals, scholars and community activists leading the discussions, the convention will address such issues as economic development, education, criminal justice, healthcare, housing and reparations. We wanted to make sure we had people who had spent some time on task and had clear notions about agenda items,” Johnson told N’Digo magazine, a Chicago-based weekly.

The Gary convention also served as inspiration for organizers of the first National Hip Hop Political Convention, June 16-20 in Newark, New Jersey. About 3,000 people attended the convention to nudge the enormous but politically apathetic hip-hop generation into political activism. Conferees developed a platform that addresses such issues as education, economic justice, reparations and healthcare, which it plans to distribute to all the presidential candidates.

To those who have snidely complained that the hip-hop generation was apathetic and politically irresponsible, it can be said those days are over,” hip-hop columnist Davy D wrote in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, funded by mogul Russell Simmons and headed by Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, has had major success in using rap stars to attract huge crowds to political events. The crucial question is whether that initial attraction will keep youth involved; analysts surely will be watching to see if hip-hop makes a difference in the vote.

The established parties will have a deaf ear — unless we have a movement strong enough to sway elections and get commitments before the elections,” Muhammad recently told Alter​net​.org.

The Democrats’ message of cultural diversity and tolerance should resonate with the hip-hop generation and the party should exploit that link just as the GOP exploits its cultural connections to the religious right and Southern conservatives. The hip-hop community’s widespread dislike of Bush administration policies on war and civil liberties offer Democrats a unique opportunity to lock in a whole new generation of black voters.

Older black Americans already are on board. Nine of 10 African Americans voted for Al Gore in 2000, and a June Gallup Poll has Kerry beating Bush 81 percent to 12 percent among blacks. But the increased activity from across the black generational spectrum indicates there is new political movement — perhaps even a movement.

Kerry is aware that no Democrat has won a majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson enlisted the party into the civil rights movement in 1964, so he seeks to maintain the delicate balance demanded by America’s peculiar racial protocol. Right now, Ralph Nader seems to be the beneficiary of that Democratic diffidence. His independent campaign reportedly is attracting unusual black support — buttressed by his forthright denunciation of the war in Iraq.

Kerry’s wishy-washy positions on the Iraq invasion and his Bush-lite formulations on other Middle East issues reflect the muddled mindset of the Democratic mainstream on issues of foreign policy. The Democrats need to redress some of the social and economic inequalities expressed in the United States’ foreign and domestic policies. By acknowledging past mistakes, the Democrats could waste less time justifying historical myths and more time crafting multilateral policies that stress international standards of human rights and social justice.

For that, Democrats need to be less in thrall to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and embrace instead the policy proposals being offered by the Institute for Policy Studies or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Progressives also should take a page from the right wing’s playbook and get serious about funding progressive media, think tanks and foundations.

In this election, however, black Americans have no choice. The Bush clique of clumsy neo-imperialists, religious opportunists and no-bid corporatists has, in less than four years, taken America from having a budget surplus to running an endless deficit; from being a beacon of democracy and human rights to an occupying force reviled by the international community. The statistics outlining black America’s disproportionate miseries also damn the Republicans. Just think if they got four more years.

If Kerry should win, progressives also must fight to prevent his administration from being overrun by the DLC. Already progressive forces are rustling within the Democratic Party — backed by a loose coalition of Bush-weary voters of all types. Black Americans are among those stretching their political muscles in interesting ways, as are Latino and progressive white youth who are forming a host of activist groups designed to bring about political change. There is a refreshing sense of movement in the air.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.

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