Black voters look out for their own interests - just like whites

February 09, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Let's hope the slander of black voters has ended - at least for this season.

Before South Carolina's Democratic primary, several political analysts predicted that the Rev. Al Sharpton would walk away with the majority of black votes in the contest. That analysis was superficial and insulting, based on the broadest of stereotypes - black voters will support any black candidate.

But the actual results of the primary tell a very different story: Black voters supported Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry by much larger margins than Mr. Sharpton. Once and for all, political commentators should have learned the lesson that black voters cast their ballots for those who best represent their interests - just as white voters do.

It's surprising that black Southerners are so poorly understood by other Southerners. One of the prognosticators with a skewed and superficial view of black South Carolinians was Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. In the Jan. 5 Wall Street Journal, Mr. Miller proclaimed: "Conventional wisdom says native Southerners John Edwards and Wesley Clark and moderate Joe Lieberman will have the edge when the primaries move south. Don't count on it. I'd be willing to bet a steak dinner ... that Al Sharpton will get almost as many votes as Messrs. Edwards, Clark or Lieberman in this supposedly more friendly territory. ... The last time there was an African-American in the primaries, Jesse Jackson blew everyone away, getting 96 percent of the African-American vote in the South. ... So get ready to start counting Rev. Sharpton's delegates."

I hope the senator knows some good steak restaurants. Mr. Sharpton received 17 percent of the black vote in South Carolina; Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry polled 37 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Mr. Miller knows better. His successful two terms as Georgia's governor owe much to the allegiance of black voters, who were drawn to his then-moderate politics, which included an attempt to change a state flag dominated by the Confederate battle insignia.

It's true that when Mr. Miller ran for governor in 1990, he was out-polled among black voters in the Democratic primary by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. (In the general election against a Republican, Mr. Miller drew solid black support.) But Mr. Sharpton is no Andy Young. The New York activist is intelligent and has broadened his expertise in foreign and domestic issues, but he lacks electoral experience and, more important, credibility.

Forty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, it should be clear that black voters have grown in political sophistication. While there will always be a slender margin of black Americans who will vote for any candidate who panders to their basest racial impulses (just as there will always be a minority of white voters who cast their votes based on their prejudices), most black voters support candidates who articulate their highest aspirations.

Just like most white voters, they are concerned about the economy, about health care costs, about educating their children. They want to be sure that the country is adequately defended. They worry about deficits, about Social Security, about Medicare.

While black voters are often caricatured as blindly loyal to the Democratic Party, their allegiance is hardly blind. It is knowing. Blacks tend to be conservative on many social issues - they tend to support the death penalty and public prayer in public schools, for example - but they are suspicious of the Republican Party for an obvious reason: Too many Republican politicians have pandered to interests that still resent the civil rights movement. Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision to campaign as defender of the old Georgia flag, with its Confederate insignia, is just one example.

Black American voters are no great mystery, really. Any politician who wishes to draw their support must respect their political sophistication and pledge to represent their interests. Isn't that the same way politicians campaign for white voters' support?

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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