“We must finally emerge from the Jim Crow mentality that celebrated every Black grasp for the golden ring, no matter how loathsome the grasper.”
Despite the defeat of the GOP’s three Black candidates for statewide office in last week’s elections, Republicans succeeded in achieving their overall goal of garnering a significant share of Black votes in Maryland and Ohio. The Right has learned well an historical lesson: the Black polity can be split by displaying Black faces in political races. Were it not for this year’s general Democratic electoral “wave” the GOP would now be celebrating its newfound rainbow coalition and the death of African American political solidarity. By now, the corporate media – equally eager to erase Blacks as a distinct political entity – would have already written the obituary: Race Is No Longer An Issue.
In Maryland, Black Lt. Governor Michael Steele took 25 percent of the African American vote in his losing racing for the Senate – exceeding the 20 percent Black crossover goals set by Republicans at the beginning of the Bush administration. The infamous Black Ohio Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, whose wholesale disenfranchisement of African American voters gave George Bush a second term in 2004, nevertheless got 20 percent of the Black vote. Only in Pennsylvania, where the former football star Lynn Swann ran for governor under the GOP banner, was the Black Republican vote held to a more historically “normal” 13 percent.
The story continues below the brown box
“Our enemies have found the Black Achilles heel.”
The political Right has found the formula to split the Black vote – just enough to nullify its unique impact. They have begun to navigate a deep current in historical Black political behavior, having discovered a near-Pavlovian response among some African Americans to the prospect of Black faces in high places, no matter what the content of the candidate’s character, associations, or policies. It is a response rooted in the long experience of Jim Crow segregation and near-absolute exclusion of Blacks from general civil society, which created an aching hunger for representation of any kind in the halls of power. Our enemy’s have found the Black Achilles heel.
The GOP has no intention of recruiting Blacks en mass. It is the White Man’s Party, a vehicle to mobilize whites against “others” – mainly Blacks and, more recently, Latino immigrants – in the service of a corporate agenda. Mass Black involvement in the Republican Party would defeat the purpose of the mechanism, and drive many whites to some other political formation. However, if historical Black political solidarity around progressive issues and candidates can be fractured, then the GOP’s purpose will have been achieved.
White corporate Democrats, in their rush to retain white voters, have played into Republican hands. None of the four Democratic candidates for statewide office in Maryland were Black, despite the fact that a quarter of the state’s voters are African Americans – which means that Blacks make up as much as 40 percent of Maryland’s Democrats. Thus, the most opportunistic elements of the Black political class were given a free pass to endorse Steele, the Republican, on the grounds that Democrats were taking Blacks for granted. Four county councilmen and one former county executive from Prince Georges County – the most prosperous majority-Black county in the nation – crossed the line.
Although Steele was defeated – attracting much fewer white voters than Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who also lost – the statisticians at the Republican National Committee could announce to their bosses that the GOP strategy of putting Black front men/women on the ticket is an effective way to ultimately destroy the Black political consensus.
“They are betting that a substantial minority of African Americans care more about putting Black faces in high places than about the core issues that impact Black lives.”
The vast majority of Black voters did not betray their own interests in Maryland, or Ohio, but the erosion of solidarity and political focus is evident. The Republican line – which the five Prince Georges County Black Democrats bought into – is that African Americans need to leverage their votes with the threat to switch parties. In reality, there is no choice at this time but to struggle for Black solidarity within the Democratic Party, based on principles of social and economic justice, racial equality, and world peace – the cornerstones of the historical Black consensus. There is no room for such a dialogue in the GOP, whose intention is only to destroy the Black consensus and sweep African American politics into the dustbin of history through the deployment of Black Republican front men. They are betting that a substantial minority of African Americans care more about putting Black faces in high places – and avenging the slights and insults inflicted by white Democrats – than about the core issues that impact Black lives: health care, housing, employment, the criminal justice system, and peace.
The Harold Ford Affair
The Black political class – aspirants to money, power and media coverage – has emerged as the “push” towards more rightwing political behavior among African Americans, the masses of whom have resisted becoming accomplices in their own destruction. A Reuters article titled “Black Candidates Veer to Center” – meaning, to the right – was carried by hundreds of newspapers across the country on November 12. “Black candidates in the U.S. midterm elections moved toward the political center, seeking votes across the spectrum and playing down race,” read the lead sentence.
“There was in fact not much in the way of ideological difference to distinguish between Republican Bob Corker and Harold Ford.”
No one exemplifies the disconnect between mass Black interests and the Black political class, than Harold Ford, Jr., the former congressman from Tennessee who lost his bid for a Senate seat last week. Ford managed to position himself as the most rightwing member of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to the twice-yearly scorecard of the CBC Monitor, a Black watchdog group. As BAR’s Bruce Dixon wrote last week, Ford is a “pro-privatization, pro-torture, pro-war Bush sycophant craven enough to claim his own black grandmother was actually white to get a few more white votes.”
Harold Ford has gone Republican in all but name. As the Memphis Flyer put it:
“Beyond the convenient descriptors of race or party label, there was in fact not much in the way of ideological difference to distinguish between [Republican Bob] Corker and Ford. Whatever their private convictions, both had progressively moved from their party's moderate wings to positions that were clearly right of center.
“Both candidates, formerly pro-choice on abortion, now described themselves as pro-life. Both opposed gay marriage. Both favored an extension of the Bush tax cuts, opposed immediate troops withdrawals from Iraq, and supported the president on the so-called ‘torture’ bill. Their differences even on issues like tort reform and Social Security were even being fudged.”
Writing in Time magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that Ford’s campaign,
“had no problem deploying the vague rhetoric of family, in hopes of demonstrating that a Democrat could be staunch in discriminating against gays. Ultimately Ford's hope was to build a rainbow coalition, one that would unite rednecks and the ghetto in mutual homophobia.”
Yet the black political establishment – as well as the Black masses, most of whom are unaware of how far Ford has traveled into enemy territory – held their breath in hopes of Ford’s ascendance to the U.S. Senate. Another Black face in a high place!
“Ford and his ilk would bring an end to Black politics.
From the standpoint of progressive Black politics, the outcome of last week’s elections was ideal: Democrats gained control of the Senate, while Harold Ford lost. We would not be burdened with an amoral man who aggressively marketed himself as a “model” for the “new Black politics” – when in fact, Ford and his ilk would bring an end to Black politics and, therefore, the final defeat of progressive electoral politics in the United States.
Seeds of the Debacle
During the entire period from Emancipation to passage of the Voting Rights Act and other legislation that condemned Jim Crow to death, African Americans were rightfully consumed with the quest to break out of non-personhood, invisibility. Every personal, professional or political triumph of any Black individual was perceived as a victory for all African Americans. The very presence of a Black face in a high place was a cause for celebration – and rightly so.
With Jim Crow in his grave in the late Sixties, African Americans suddenly faced a brand new world. Should the mass movement that had achieved this amazing triumph continue along its logical path – the one outlined in speech after speech by Dr. Martin Luther King – towards social and economic justice and peace? Or, should Blacks focus solely on taking advantage of their new opportunities within the existing social order, electing their own representatives, obtaining a fair share of contracts (for those in a position to bid), and glorying in a media exposure that had been unimaginable only a few years before.
The Black political class – tied tightly to the Black business class and including many veterans of the Movement – opted to shut down mass action. It was not in their interest to upset a status quo that they were eager to inhabit. The disconnect between the upwardly mobile classes and the Black masses – a result of the death of Jim Crow – became acute over the ensuing three decades, into the Nineties. But the fundamentals of the Black political consensus that had prevailed since Emancipation remained the guiding principles of Black politics. Until the mid-to-late-Nineties.
“Every personal, professional or political triumph of any Black individual was perceived as a victory for all African Americans.”
Corporate America woke up to realization that it had not used its vast resources to intervene in Black politics, effectively. The solid Black vote was an impediment to total corporate control of the United States, and had to be dismantled – or made to appear so. Black politicians emerged who distanced themselves from the historical Black consensus, and were rewarded handsomely by corporate donors and media. Barack Obama told the nation, at the 2004 Democratic convention, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America” – thus dismissing the African American world view and experience. By 2005, the Congressional Black Caucus was neutered, hopelessly split over issues pressed by corporations. The rot continues.
However, it is incorrect to assign all blame to big money and big media for this sea change in the behavior of the Black political class, and the vulnerability of an increasing number of Black voters to Republicans in natural blackface. The problem is, African Americans have not fully made the transition from a Jim Crow world – the world that shaped our polity for so many generations. We still long to see Black faces in high places, as did our parents and grandparents. This atavism can be fatal, because the powers-that-be have got our number. They know our weakness, and will work it, by presenting candidates from both parties that serve corporate interests – but whom we are expected to support because they look like us.
If African Americans are to be a truly mature, grown-up people, we must finally emerge from the Jim Crow mentality that celebrated every Black grasp for the golden ring, no matter how loathsome the grasper. Otherwise, we will be mired in the mentality of an era that ended two generations ago.
Every Black face in a high place does not represent The Race.
Glen Ford can be reached at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com