The new black voter

December 17, 2004|By Rick C. Wade

FOR YEARS, many African-Americans, tired of being ignored by Republicans and taken for granted by Democrats, have been crying in the wilderness. Democrats are hearing their cries, but Republicans seem to be responding to them.

While no one foresees a great exodus of black voters to the Republican Party, a growing number of them are regarding Republicans favorably because of the GOP's ability to claim and define issues that matter to them as individuals, such as jobs, taxes, business and values.

This group includes mainstream, independent and more-corporate-minded African-Americans who find it increasingly difficult to view the Democratic Party as their link to individual prosperity.

Yes, they are the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement and are constantly reminded of that. No, they have not forgotten their history. But the timing of their upbringing has certainly shaped who they are.

To a large extent, they are the fruits of the Democratic Party's labor but could very well become the promise of the Republican Party's future. These modern black Democrats are not sure where they fit. But there is a gradual, significant paradigm shift in the black electorate that the Democratic Party cannot afford to ignore.

African-Americans have become more politically astute and realize the value and power of their votes. They are demanding more accountability to ensure that their votes really do count. Black clergy are insisting that candidates address moral issues and visit their churches throughout the year instead of merely two weeks before Election Day.

Voters are researching candidates and relying less on sound bites and endorsements by popular political kingpins. Those leaders certainly have their followers, and their endorsements have value. But it is a fallacy to assume that one or two leaders can shake all the apples from the voting tree into any one bucket.

In the past, my mother called on local black leaders to find out for whom she should vote. Today, she reads the newspapers and watches political programs on TV, seeking to understand the issues so that she can make her own decisions. Simply put, black voters are becoming more diverse, and one segment among them is becoming increasingly independent -- the younger, more-educated and more-independent-minded blacks, hybrids who share beliefs that are both Republican and Democratic. The Democratic Party's ability to grasp this change and adapt its message to reach multiple markets within the black electorate will directly impact its influence now and in the future.

The shifts in the black political landscape were evident during the past presidential election. As a campaign aide, I was with the Rev. Al Sharpton as we crisscrossed the battleground states on behalf of Sen. John Kerry. His listeners were mainly black and white Democratic loyalists, activists, churchgoers, students and the like. Mr. Sharpton had an inspiring and compelling message.

But unlike during the civil rights era, there was not a single unifying issue or an organized movement to sustain that message.

Further, there is a disconnect between current black leaders and younger voters.

For example, Mr. Sharpton tried to put into historical context the reason why blacks should vote. He cited the slayings of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi and the deaths of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. They had little or no meaning to many younger voters.

However, recording artists such as P. Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Q-Tip, Foxy Brown and others did indeed make valiant attempts to make voting and the election relevant to the hip-hop generation by talking about issues such as affordable college education, jobs after graduation and young people fighting in Iraq.

Nonetheless, if we are to maintain and enhance our positions as key and relevant stakeholders in America's future, those of us on the front lines must confront the difficult challenges of connecting old-school leaders with new-school thinkers and finding a unifying message for a black community that is more diverse than ever.

Further, we must find ways to bridge a generation removed from the civil rights movement and entrenched in the middle with those still on the economic margins, far removed from mainstream America and disengaged from political discourse. The harsh reality is that while some gaps are closing, some are widening.

The bottom line is that the Democratic base has changed, and so must the Democratic Party. The party must find new ways to harvest the present and cultivate the future. If the party does not effectively respond to the shifts within the black electorate, Republicans will continue to seize the opportunity to siphon off a significant number of black voters.

This does not mean that we African-Americans should put all of our eggs in just one basket. Rather, we should place them with both Republican and Democratic candidates. Then when the eggs are prepared and served, we will always be assured a seat at the table, regardless of the cook.

Rick C. Wade, a former South Carolina government official, is a corporate executive and political analyst. He lives in Columbia, S.C.

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