In a July speech to the National Urban League Convention, President Bush asked: "Does the Democratic Party take African-American voters for granted?" The answer: a resounding yes.
But why wouldn't the Democrats take them for granted? Blacks are the most loyal of Democrat shock troops. In every election back to Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, they have given the Democrats more than 80 percent of their vote. Even as an increasing number of Latinos, Asians and trade unionists defected to the Republicans, blacks stood pat with the Democrats. But in recent years they haven't gotten much in return.
Civil rights leaders hail the Clinton years as solid years for civil rights gains. But they weren't. He added scores of new death penalty provisions to federal law. America's prisons quickly bulged with mostly black and Latino males, many convicted of non-violent, petty crimes and drug offenses.
He radically downsized welfare, toughened federal anti-crime and drug laws, and pared away affirmative action programs. These were all Reagan, Bush Sr. and Nixon proposals that the Congressional Black Caucus and liberal Democrats vehemently opposed, and had languished in Congress. The ranks of the black poor quickly soared, the numbers jailed for mostly non-violent, non-serious crimes jumped, and funds for skill and education programs to permanently break the welfare cycle for the poor evaporated.
Clinton also caved in and dumped his nominees Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and Jocelyn Elders as surgeon general after they got mild flak from conservative Republicans. He did appoint a few blacks to administration positions, and increased funding for AIDS prevention, minority business, education and African relief.
Though every civil rights leader hammers Bush as the second coming of the unrepentant George Wallace, he has also touted minority business, education reform, increased AIDS funding and African aid. Bush's Justice Department has actually opened more pattern or practice discrimination cases than Clinton did his last two years in office. And Bush's black appointees, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Rod Paige, hold more important administration posts with far greater policy making power and influence over domestic and foreign policy than Clinton's appointees ever had.
Al Gore spent most of his presidential campaign avoiding appearances in black communities, and was stone silent on issues such as racial profiling, affirmative action, housing and job discrimination, the racial disparities in prison sentencing, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health care for the poor, failing inner city schools and ending the racially marred drug sentencing policy. Gore got away with this blatant racial patronizing by playing hard on the terror and panic that a Bush win in 2000 stirred in many blacks. But when blacks scurried to vote for Gore out of fear of a Bush win they gave the Democrats another free ride.
John Kerry has pretty much followed the same cautious script. He once called affirmative action "limited" and "divisive." He has not totally publicly recanted his words. He made a tepid call at the NAACP and Urban League conventions for more support for minority business, job creation, and against discrimination and gang violence. But Bush says much the same thing.
The tough talk in the Democratic platform and a Kerry-Edwards campaign statement about ramping up military and intelligence spending and hard target preemptive strikes is a transparent effort to trump Bush on his pet national security issue. It's also a big tip-off that terrorism and national security, not civil rights or social issues, will be the Democrats' big campaign focus.
Yet, when the election crunch comes, Kerry will probably do what Gore did in 2000 and turn up at black churches, preaching, praying, and belting out "We Shall Overcome." He'll enlist an endless parade of black Democrats, athletes, entertainers and trade unionists to beseech black voters to make a life-or-death stampede to the polls. Then they'll turn to Clinton for help. He'll dutifully hustle off to black neighborhoods to fire up the party's black faithful.
But, as Gore found out, this may not be enough to hurdle the apathy and resentment many blacks feel toward the Democrats. A July poll by Black Entertainment Television/CBS found that blacks are overwhelmingly hostile to Bush. But fewer than one out of three blacks are enthusiastic about Kerry. If they stay home in droves on Election Day, Bush won't need the Supreme Court or a disputed Florida vote count to win. Kerry and the Democrats have a lot of work to do to convince them to show up in those big numbers.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).