Recasting the black vote

African-Americans are apparently willing to ignore race and vote for candidates who they feel will best advance their interests.

September 26, 1999|By Erin Texeira

ALL THE TALK of interracial endorsing and voting this campaign season has obscured the fact that most people in the nation, including Baltimore, still vote along racial lines. In the city's Sept. 14 Democratic primary, nine out of 10 white voters supported Martin O'Malley for mayor, and seven out of 10 blacks voted for a black candidate.

In most instances, it appears, whites remain less willing than blacks to support candidates who don't look like them. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was sometimes, but not always, an exception to that rule.

But one unspoken truth of the primary is that the split among black voters reflects a philosophical rift in the African-American community: Namely, many blacks are determined to consider the merits of political candidates -- as well as the merits of businesses, schools and neighborhoods -- without letting color dictate their actions. Quality, they say, is what counts.

But a significant number of African-Americans say they feel that, after centuries of being at the bottom of the heap, they should keep their votes, and money, among their own.

Even before blacks helped O'Malley coast to victory, many asked a question long considered taboo in mixed company: Despite the civil rights and Black Power movements, do some African-Americans still think white leaders are best because they are white?

Orisha Kammefa, a West Baltimore community activist, says the O'Malley victory reflects blacks' "deep-seated self-hatred."

"I think we're steeped in being fooled and looking for a messiah who doesn't look like us," she says. "Either we are striving for black upliftment or not. We need to channel our energies to unification, just like white people."

On WEAA-FM, the Morgan State University radio station, talk-show conversations during the past 12 days have included much hand-wringing over whether blacks lost ground in the election.

Last week, the Rev. Carl L. Washington and his Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore revoked a speaking invitation to the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, because he endorsed O'Malley.

"I feel we shouldn't give back our goals and strides we've made without our turn at bat," Washington says. "In this society, people are still judged by the color of their skin, not the content of their character."

"This is not a matter of a person's politics," Washington says, adding that politics "is personal."

Washington's comments reveal -- no surprise -- that parsing issues of race and politics is like trying to separate smoke from air.

But many are wondering whether the "Vote black" dictum remains the best way to ensure that elected officials serve African-American voters.

Baltimore is not the first city with a mostly minority population to support a white leader. In 1995, Gary, Ind., which is 90 percent black, elected Scott L. King, who is white. Last year, Oakland, Calif. -- mostly Latino, Asian-American and black -- handed white candidate Jerry Brown a landslide victory.

This would have been unheard of a generation or two ago, says Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. The civil rights movement led to a series of "black power mayors," he says -- leaders elected by blacks to help give African-Americans a leg up. They spearheaded affirmative action and fair housing programs, policies that have contributed to the nation's largest black middle class ever.

But, says Walters, with the sharp decline of federal funding for cities during the 1980s, mayors across the nation have less power to affect changes. The most successful mayors, of any color, are those who can bridge the interests of racial groups, appeal to business owners and work well in state capitals.

Walters recalls speaking on a panel in Gary, soon after voters elected King.

"There were two feelings," he recalls. "One, that blacks had been let down by this vote; and others talked about how Gary had gone down economically in recent years, and they said voting for a white mayor was a sign of frustration ... [as well as] a way to change things in the city."

He adds, "There is this constant tension."

Some experts wonder if the elections in Baltimore, Gary and Oakland show that the struggle over the black vote might be won by those who are moving away from the "Vote black" philosophy.

Says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank in Washington, "It wasn't a question of some splitting up of the black vote in Gary -- everybody's black in Gary. Obviously, the black voters in Gary chose this guy and, unless you want to say they're stupid, they listened to what he had to say and said, 'Hey, we'll try it.'"

Bositis points out that cities without black majorities, including Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, have, or recently had, black mayors. Gary Locke, an Asian-American, was elected governor of Washington in 1996.

"He didn't get elected with Asian votes, I can tell you that," Bositis says. "That's one white place."

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