`Black vote' disappearing from American politics

April 06, 2004|By Todd Boyd

LOS ANGELES - Media commentators and pundits won't be able to phone it in this year, offering the same tired cliches about black voters and politicians. Instead, the pundits will have to recondition their minds if they are to fully appreciate the profound shifts in the black political landscape and, in turn, American politics.

To begin, consider this question: What happened to the "black vote"? Once a hot topic of discussion during presidential campaigns, it has been noticeably absent in recent years. Instead, it is the Hispanic swing vote that appears to be "in play" right now, with both parties vying for this group's attention in the presidential race.

It's not all that hard to figure out why. Over the years, Democrats have come to take the black vote for granted. And why shouldn't they, as long as blacks vote overwhelmingly and unwaveringly Democratic?

Republicans feel the converse: No matter what they do - even with prominent black figures such as Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice in high places - they now realize that their appeal to black voters remains limited. So, why address this constituency? Hispanics, by contrast, are up for grabs.

A cursory glance across the political landscape reveals another fact: There are no black politicians with a substantial presence on the national stage who demand any real respect.

In the 1970s and 1980s, black elected officials were leading the way in creating a new culture of leadership throughout the country, with prominent elections to the mayor's office and beyond. Black politicians such as Coleman A. Young, Tom Bradley and Maynard Jackson made history when they were elected mayor in some of the nation's largest cities. The trend continued in the 1980s when figures such as Harold S. Washington and David N. Dinkins rode to victory in their own cities. Black politicians were becoming a powerful celebrity class. But today, rappers and athletes seem to have stolen their thunder.

Instead, we now get the recent presidential aspirations of the Rev. Al Sharpton - who has neither the visibility of his predecessors nor the support of black voters in large numbers.

Although some speculated that Mr. Sharpton would do well in states such as South Carolina, where a large percentage of the electorate is black, he fared poorly. He was not seen as someone who could get elected, and in 2004, blacks are looking for something more than the symbolic victories the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson won in the 1980s.

The truth is that black voters in South Carolina have about as much in common with Mr. Sharpton as Mr. Sharpton does with Condoleezza Rice. To assume that blacks would automatically vote for Mr. Sharpton just because he is black is to erroneously assume that blacks are a singular entity, walking in lockstep to the beat of some invisible drummer.

And this is part of what's going on now in black politics, 40 years after the civil rights movement. As more and more blacks move into the middle, upper-middle and wealthiest classes of society, the use of race as the sole defining factor in one's identity becomes an increasingly fractured concept.

It could be argued that much of what defines the large underclass of black people in this society has to do with class as much as it does with race these days, though the two issues are not mutually exclusive. Further, issues such as gender, sexual orientation, age and geographic location are increasingly playing into one's overall sense of identity as well.

It is for this reason that I find myself cringing at blanket statements such as the "black community" and the "black vote" - these phrases continue to minimize the broad scope of contemporary black identity.

Sure, many black Americans continue to register as Democrats, but not as they used to. Today there is no more a monolithic "black vote" than there is a "white vote," and this is another reason we haven't heard anything about it lately - because it no longer truly exists, at least not the way we have understood it in the past.

The real issue is that black people are becoming more "American" by the hour, moving from a defined group identity to a more individualized sense of being. If anything, 9/11 prompted questions of national identity, and blacks passed with flying colors. Blacks, in many ways, have become mainstream.

The mainstream seldom gets attention; its presence is assumed. The new black mainstream must accept the fact that though membership has its privileges, one cannot be both marginal and mainstream at the same time.

Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. The article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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