The Politics of Leverage

DERRICK Z. JACKSON

September 15, 1992|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

BOSTON — Boston. -- So Bill Clinton thinks he can treat the African-American vote as a marginal afterthought?

Fine. In November, I may treat him as an irrelevant non-thought. I will vote for local and state offices. I may not vote for Mr. Clinton.

The Democrats say they will spend $3 million to register African-American and Latino voters. Jesse Jackson has been given a bus to find them. Mr. Clinton, who iced Mr. Jackson for two months to woo white voters, might soon appear with the reverend.

Whoopdeedoo. This was only after the black political heavens rained down on Mr. Clinton for snubbing a $6 million African-American voter drive.

Mr. Clinton will not get my vote if he keeps treating white suburbanites as the Sun and African-Americans as Pluto.

African-Americans who queue up outside a Clinton White House expecting warm fireside chats about policy priorities had better bring along an outdoor space heater.

Ron Walters, chairman of political studies at Howard University and author of ''Black Presidential Politics in America,'' told me, ''I think blacks should show up in great numbers at the polls, and then they should boycott the top of the ticket.

''We have to play the politics of leverage. Right now, we are not in a competitive position. The Republicans don't want us at all and the Democrats don't want to listen to us. If we threaten to withdraw our vote, then perhaps the candidate will finally begin to calculate our worth.

''As long as we are involved in the lesser-of-two-evils paradigm, our interests will always be secondary, tertiary or non-existent. Boycotting the top of the ticket is a legitimate way to begin a discussion of truly independent politics.

''I'd rather run the short-term risk of the Democrats not getting in, because the long-term ramifications of not changing our current mode are at least as disastrous.''

The drop in African-American voters in the 1992 primaries was steep, compared to 1988. In just 14 states, including California, Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the negative difference was 1.5 million votes.

That is far more than the plurality margins of victory for Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and nearly that of Jimmy Carter.

Governor Clinton thinks he can win enough white voters to write off this black loss. If he is right, African-Americans must view the lesser-of-two-evils paradigm for what it is.

It is a narcotic. It keeps us from using mass leverage to be treated as equals as Democrats or to organize a third party.

In 1924, writer James Weldon Johnson said the African-American ''must keep politicians uncertain as to how he will vote; serving notice that the way his vote will be cast depends on certain

pledges and performances.''

Martin Luther King Jr. said African-American voters must be ''strong enough to form alliances, to make commitments in exchange for pledges, and if the pledges are unredeemed, it remains powerful enough to walk out without being shattered.''

Malcolm X said, ''A ballot is like a bullet. You don't throw your ballot until you reach a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.''

Until Governor Clinton targets policies directly at African-Americans, my ballot stays in my pocket.

Many of my friends challenge me on this posture. They ask me, ''If Clinton wins with no black vote, won't we really be out in the cold?''

Frostbite is frostbite whether incurred on Democratic Pluto or Republican Deep Space. I am not impressed that Mr. Clinton offers me a space heater when we should be at his fireplace.

Sorry Mr. Bill. No heat. No vote.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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