Change in the black political landscape

Posted: Nov 06, 2002 12:00 AM
For the past 50 years, black voters have sworn a loyalty oath to the Democratic Party. That's all changing now. According to a recent opinion poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, young black Americans are breaking from traditional voting patterns on issues no less pervasive than Social Security, educational quality, vouchers and federalism. The study also indicated that, over the last two years, support for the Democratic Party has dropped 11 percent amongst black voters. During that same period, black support for the Republican Party has more than doubled, from 4 percent to 10 percent. Though 10 percent may not seem like a lot, it represents a significant stride for a party that managed a mere 2 percent of the black vote during the last presidential election. Part of the problem was that the Republican Party's opposition to some key civil rights issues in the '60s, coupled with their more recent resistance to affirmative action, alienated many black voters. The fact that the Republican Party was comprised largely of white, Southern politicians didn't help either. But recent outreach efforts by the Republican Party, combined with its commitment on the national level to facilitate ethnic diversity, has helped Republicans to stay in touch with the concerns of black voters. At the same time, a younger generation of black Americans inhabits a vastly different social climate than their forbears - a fact that may make them ripe for Republican appeals. "We see a new generation of African-Americans who are better educated, more successful, more pro-business and, therefore, drawn to policy positions vastly different from their parents and grandparents," said the Joint Center's president and CEO, Eddie Williams. These shifts in the political attitudes of black voters have likely had a ripple effect on black leadership. Black elected officials and leaders are broadening their public policy appeals beyond what might be considered strictly black issues. Indeed, it is telling that a black Republican, Gen. Colin Powell, corralled a 73 percent approval rating, second only to former President Bill Clinton's 81 percent acceptance rate. Meanwhile, the study revealed that civil rights icon and Democrat mouthpiece Jesse L. Jackson's approval rating plummeted to 60 percent, down 23 percent from two years ago. These shifts in public opinion and political leadership have helped the Republican Party break the Democrats monopoly over the black vote on several key issues. In particular, Republican support of school vouchers has resonated with a generation of young urban blacks that are desperate for educational alternatives. According to a 1999 poll by The Joint Center for Economic Studies, 70 percent of blacks under the age of 35 support school vouchers. Many researchers regard education reform as the most important factor in closing the racial performance gap. By offering to do more than simply throw more money at failing public schools, the Republicans have taken ownership of the school reform debate. Not that any of this will stop black leaders like Julian Bond from implying that the Republican leadership is chummy with the Ku Klux Klan, as he did during a 2000 speech to the NAACP national convention. Nor will it stop Kweisi Mfume from dubbing the Republican leadership as anti-civil rights, as he did during a 1999 fund-raising event. And it certainly won't stop Jesse Jackson from reviling Republicans as the slavery party, as he did following the 2000 election. All three of these black leaders have aligned themselves with the Democratic Party. For reasons of self-preservation, they continue to paint the Republicans as little more than redneck powerbrokers. That's how they make a living - by stirring racial tensions. A lot of people will follow along. Not because the Republicans have little to offer black voters, but because there is a decades-old social mandate that says black people must vote Democrat. Still, others will break from the straightjacket of these anachronistic cultural mandates. They will make decisions in their own interests rather than blindly pledge allegiance to the Democrats. According to the new Joint Center, they are the younger generation of black Americans. They will respond to ideas, not outdated cultural mandates. And their vote will no longer be taken for granted. That, indeed, is inspiring.