COVER

AN ISSUE OF RACE

JESSE JACKSON AND THE BLACK VOTE

MARCI McDONALD November 7 1988
COVER

AN ISSUE OF RACE

JESSE JACKSON AND THE BLACK VOTE

MARCI McDONALD November 7 1988

AN ISSUE OF RACE

COVER

JESSE JACKSON AND THE BLACK VOTE

The voice still rang with the same rolling cadences, the same rhyming couplets and urgent singsong chants. But inside Oakland’s Evergreen Baptist Church, the sermon that Jesse Jackson had chosen to deliver to the all-black congregation jamming the pews was, for him, a highly unusual one. His subject was charisma—in particular, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis’s lack of it. “We’re not talking about smiling, styling, profiling,” he said. In fact, Jackson made no attempt to apologize for the Massachusetts governor’s shortcomings. Instead, he urged his listeners to forgive Dukakis his ponderous personality and vote for his policies. Said Jackson: “Give us the houses and we’ll supply the smiles. I do not need Dukakis’s passion. I need his priorities.”

Passion: To many listeners, that endorsement itself seemed to lack passion. But as Jackson has crisscrossed the country in recent weeks urging blacks to vote for Dukakis, he has taken pains to demonstrate that the former Democratic primary rivals have patched up their explosive two-month rift. Still, some party officials clearly feared that their uneasy reconciliation may have taken place too late. Dukakis’s attempts to court conservative white Democrats in the South have plainly failed, leaving his Republican rival, Vice-President George Bush, with a virtual lock on the white southern vote. And, in the process, the governor’s often-clumsy efforts to keep his distance from Jackson have alienated many blacks—who make up 11 per cent of the electorate and comprise the party’s largest and most loyal voting bloc.

According to a survey by Washington’s Joint Centre for Political Studies, only 51 per cent of black Americans plan to vote on Nov. 8. To black leaders, that disaffection is all the more disturbing at a time when, they charge, Bush has knowingly used television advertisements to stir racial fears. Said Jackson: “There have been a number of rather ugly race-con-

scious signals sent from that campaign.” Those accusations burst into the open two weeks ago when one of Dukakis’s top black officials, deputy national field director Donna Brazile—who resigned after comments to reporters about Vice-President George Bush’s personal life—charged that Bush’s organizers had “used every code word and racial symbol to package their little racist campaign.” Brazile specifically attacked television commercials that show how a convicted black murderer named Willie Horton—fleeing a Massachusetts weekend prison-furlough program in 1986—raped a Maryland woman and tortured her fiancé. “They’re using the oldest racial symbol imaginable,” said Brazile. “I mean a black man raping a white woman while her husband watches.” Last week, Jackson made similar claims. “The use of the Willie Horton example,” he charged, “is designed to create the most horrible psychosexual fears.”

Racial: Bush has denied the accusations. But commentators have pointed out that his campaign has also sent subtle racial messages using other code words. Said analyst William Schneider of Washington’s nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute: “Crime, gun control, law and order: the whole agenda originated in the racial polarization of the late 1960s.” Added Chicago political consultant Donald Rose: “Nobody is hollering ‘Nigger!’ obviously, but I don’t think there is any question in anyone’s mind what these messages mean.” Schneider maintained that in the South, as well as in the industrial cities of the North, most of the socalled Reagan Democrats who have defected to the Republican party over the past two presidential elections were whites who felt threatened by the growing strength of blacks in the Democratic party.

Ugly: But many blacks blame the Democrats themselves for reopening old racial wounds. After the humiliating defeat of the party’s 1984 nominee, Walter Mondale—for whom many southern leaders refused to campaign—a group of conservatives formed the Democratic Leadership Council to press for a candidate who could win back the support of white southern males. As some analysts noted, the DLC’s concerns implicitly raised issues that appeared to be race-based. “At the bottom of it,” said Merle Black of the University of North Carolina, “they’re very ugly questions.”

That ugliness crested during last April’s bitter New York primary battle. Campaigning for the DLC’s favored candidate, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, outspoken New York City Mayor Ed Koch added fuel to an already inflammatory racial climate by warning that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for Jackson, who in 1984 called the city “Hymietown.” Now, in the campaign’s final days, strains of that racial distrust still linger with both groups, traditionally the Democrats’ core electorate. In New York state, Democratic congressmen have fanned out among nervous Jewish communities to deny rumors that Dukakis has made a secret backroom deal giving Jackson influence after the election. And in Jackson’s home town of Chicago, Carol Boron of the liberal Multi-Issue Political Action Committee said, “The Republicans are using Jackson to scare Jews away from the Democratic party.”

Symbol: Those statements help to explain why Dukakis has tried to keep the former preacher at arm’s length. But many blacks say that those tactics reflect outright insensitivity.

On June 18, after defeating Jackson in the California primary, Dukakis paid a courtesy call on former Alabama governor George Wallace, now ill and confined to a wheelchair in Montgomery, the living symbol of white southern opposition to integration. Then, on Aug. 4, Dukakis made a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Miss., another symbol of racial intolerance. His visit was 24 years to the day after the discovery that three civil rights activists had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. But Dukakis made no mention of the incident to his predominantly white audience. And that provoked Jackson to note in a TV interview that the black community was waiting for “signals of sensitivity.” But, in fact, most black Americans had been waiting for signals from Jackson himself. After Dukakis appeared to snub him—failing to reach him by phone before reports leaked out that he had chosen Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate—Jackson had sent confusing signals to his followers. The tensions between the two camps, which threatened to split the Democratic convention last July, were smoothed over in an eleventh-hour compromise. Still, many of Jackson’s constituents clearly remained skeptical about the closingnight reconciliation, which featured the two men side by side on the Atlanta stage. Indeed, within six weeks, the facade of co-operation seemed to have shattered. Jackson publicly berated Dukakis for his “obsession” with winning back white conservative votes. And an aide reported that Jackson was “seething” after officials told him not to campaign in at least seven key states—including Georgia, Michigan and Mississippi, which he had won in the Democratic primaries—because his high negative ratings might drive white swing voters away from the party. Jackson also accused the Democrats of reneging on ¿heir convention promise to mount a massive $7-million blackvoter-registration drive.

Angry: Only the intercession of Dukakis’s rehired campaign adviser John Sasso healed the breach. But some black leaders accused Jackson of undermining the ticket with an eye on his own 1992 presidential ambitions. In a speech at Washington’s National Press Club, former Texas representative Barbara Jordan charged that his delays in campaigning were “intentional.” Said Jordan: “If he is going to be petulant and just come grudgingly and reluctantly when the roll is called, I hope everybody realizes who did what and when.”

But by leaving Jackson angry on the campaign sidelines until mid-September, the Dukakis strategists embittered many blacks. Oakland, Calif., postal worker Oretta Harrel vowed that she will not vote for Dukakis because “they didn’t recognize Jesse after all the work he did for them.” And while a New York TimesCBS News poll last week of registered black voters showed that 76 per cent of respondents support Dukakis over Bush, that number is 14 per cent fewer than those who backed Mondale in 1984. In fact, analysts note that Dukakis made a strategic miscalculation in assuming that he could count on the pivotal black vote, which swung 1986 Senate races in favor of the Democrats in Alabama, California, Louisiana and North Carolina. Unlike Mondale, Dukakis had no personal record on civil rights. And after ceding most black strongholds to Jackson during the primaries, he entered the fall campaign still an unknown figure to Jackson’s constituency. Said Representative Charles Hayes, a veteran black Chicago labor leader: “The Democrats can no longer take the black vote for granted.”

Now, as Dukakis’s southern strategy lies in tatters— a reality he acknowledged by pulling most of his staff out of the South last month—he has made belated efforts to mend racial fences. On Oct. 21, less than three weeks before the election, he scheduled his first black campaign event as his main tailored-for-television appearance of the day: a visit to Harlem’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he swayed woodenly to gospel hymns and told the sparse crowd, “I’m on your side.”

Apathy: Jackson has not concealed his glee in pointing out to southern conservative Democrats that their electoral blueprint has failed. Provocatively challenging DLC leaders to match his own campaign efforts, he told them to “quit jiving and go to work.” And he has launched a $4-million series of radio, TV and print ads warning black voters that they cannot afford the luxury of apathy on Nov. 8. In one, he told them that Reagan’s justice department itself has led the assault on civil rights gains and that, over the past eight years, the gap between black and white family incomes has widened by three per cent, creating a growing black urban underclass mired in poverty.

Given those grim realities—and the alarming embers of racism fanned by this year’s campaign—other black leaders have joined him, not in trying to sell Dukakis, but in appealing to black Americans to protect their own interests by voting. Said Washington law professor Eleanor Holmes Norton: “Too much is at stake. Blacks have more to lose in this election than anybody.”

MARCI McDONALD in Washington