Restoring blacks’ faith in politics

MICHAEL POSNER April 30 1984

Restoring blacks’ faith in politics

MICHAEL POSNER April 30 1984

Restoring blacks’ faith in politics


Inevitably the speaker introduces him proudly as “the next president of the United States,” and as Rev.

Jesse Jackson boldly straddles the podium, his mainly black audiences swell with genuine pride.

Jesse is one of them, a voice from the streets, and if he does nothing else he has rekindled the vision of opportunity for his people.

Without money for radio or television commercials, the 42-year-old illegitimate son of a South Carolina sharecropper has stirred the black electorate beyond even his most optimistic expectations. Jackson has persuaded blacks to register and vote in record numbers—a trend that vastly improves Democratic chances in November’s presidential

election. And he will not merely arrive in San Francisco with as many as 350 delegates committed to his candidacy (which will win him a pivotal role in determining the convention’s outcome) but he has made the once impossible prospect of a black man becoming at least vice-president entirely credible. In so doing he has helped to restore blacks' pride and their faith in the possibilities of the U.S. political system.

Still, Jackson’s campaign has clearly added new strains to race relations. If he cannot resolve them, those tensions threaten not only Democratic hopes in November but the broader social consensus that governs black-white relations as well. Jackson has demanded the abolition of runoff elections in the South, a system in which a black candidate in a field of white opponents usually suffers when the absence of an outright victor in the first round forces a second vote. Jackson’s bid has alarmed southern Democrats. They fear a flight of white voters to Republican ranks on the grounds that many whites would vote for a white Republican rather than for a black Democrat with a chance of winning. As well, Jackson’s belated admission that he had used anti-Semitic slurs (“Hymie” and “Hymietown,” about New York) in a private conversation with a black reporter has intensified Jewish suspicions of both Jackson

himself and the policies he represents. Finally, Jackson’s refusal to disavow the inflammatory statements of one of his leading surrogates, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, injected an element of ugly racism into the campaign. Farrakhan, a former calypso singer, has called whites “devils” and praised

Hitler as a “great German.” He has also threatened Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, who disclosed Jackson’s anti-Semitic words, saying, “One day soon we will punish you with death.”

Jackson has declined numerous opportunities to repudiate Farrakhan, whom he describes as a volunteer. Claims Jackson: “I have no abilities to control the words and positions and attitudes of surrogates.” If a white politician had used or tolerated similar language on the national stage, his career could have ended the next day. The fact that even his opponents have judged Jackson by a different standard—the rebukes from former vice-president Walter Móndale and Senator Gary Hart, Jackson’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, have been timid—is evidence of Jackson’s potential clout.

Turnouts by blacks in primaries in Alabama, New York and Pennsylvania were as much as 103 per cent higher this year than in 1980. Four years ago Ronald Reagan carried nine states, including New York, by pluralities of 165,000 votes or fewer. With Jackson’s invigorating summons, “I am somebody,” black votes could deliver to the eventual Democratic nominee both the Northeast and Midwest and Reagan’s southern base.

But Jackson, the potential kingmak-

er, has not yet revealed his price for actively supporting an eventual Democratic ticket. His campaign to eliminate runoff elections—now in use in 10 southern states—has won an outright endorsement from Hart but not from Mondale. Indeed, many Democrats— black and white alike—would be reluctant to abandon it. Added Julian Bond, a black civil rights activist and Georgia state senator: “The real problem is the reluctance of white Democrats to vote for blacks. It does not help to fiddle with the election laws.”

A whole range of other issues in the Jackson platform could also destabilize the party’s coalitions. His commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan is repulsive to most traditionally Democratic Jews. His unqualified support for Third World rebel causes, his call for a 20-percent cut in defence appropriations and his championing of a whole catalogue of left-wing causes—from the nuclear freeze to the Equal Rights Amendment-might drive conservative Democrats helter-skelter back to the Reagan camp.

Moreover, if Jackson fails to reach his convention goals, either in writing a party platform acceptable to him or rewriting electoral rules that he says are prejudicial to blacks, the effect on the Democratic nominee may be even more debilitating. Jackson has pointedly ruled out the notion of an independent candidacy. But Mondale, increasingly the likely Democratic choice after a 62per-cent to 21-per-cent win over Hart in last week’s caucus in Missouri, could flatly rule out a pledge to work for abolition of the runoff system. In that event, many observers feel, Jackson might choose to sit on the political sidelines, a decision that would deter blacks from voting in the numbers needed to defeat Reagan.

Jackson’s refusal to renounce Farrakhan’s incendiary broadcasts does not augur well for compromise. Nor does it help him build the purported goal of his campaign—a rainbow coalition of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Indians and other disadvantaged minorities. Indeed, if Jackson is perceived as speaking for black America alone, the Democratic nominee is bound to be caught in an uncomfortable dilemma. Embracing Jackson and his views would risk splitting the party and probably ensure Reagan’s re-election. Rebuffing him would dash the newly resurrected hopes of black voters and add a taste of bitterness to U.S. politics that might take years to dissipate. Jackson’s presidential bid has already won him title to the leadership of black America. What has not yet been computed is the cost of that victory.