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As the Black Vote Goes

The presidential primaries for both parties could be all over but the shouting come February 5th. By then, voters in 32 states—including big hitters like New York, Florida, Michigan, and our own California—will have selected their party’s nominee. With roughly 6% of California’s voting population, Black voters could have a decisive voice here in California as in other key primary states, such as South Carolina, Florida, and New York.

Will Black voters line up lockstep behind the potential first-ever Black major-party presidential candidate Barack Obama as they did for Jesse Jackson in the 80s? Will the Black vote instead fracture along gender lines, with Black women lining up to support Hillary Clinton as the first-ever woman presidential candidate? Or will North Carolina Senator John Edwards’ increasingly hard-edged populist message capture Black voters in significant numbers?

To discuss this and other topics related to the upcoming presidential election, television talk show host, radio personality, and author Tavis Smiley addressed a group of Black and Brown community leaders and political activists at the Urban Issues Forum in Los Angeles in late December.

Growing political sophistication
When asked, “What will it take to win the Black vote?” Smiley replied, “I don’t think it’s plausible or possible in this presidential election to win the Black vote.” Speaking before a nearly all Black audience, Smiley decried the whole notion of a unified Black voting bloc. “There are Black voters, sure. But a Black vote, no—at least given the demographics on the Democratic side.”

As evidence, he pointed to Cornel West, Oprah Winfrey, and Rep. Barbara Lee supporting Obama, Danny Glover backing Edwards, Rep. John Lewis supporting Clinton, and the difficulty he’s having in making up his own mind.

“I do know that our communities—both Black and Latino—are tired of one party taking us for granted and the other ignoring us,” he said.

Smiley thinks the growing sliver of Black Republicans are excited that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee might hang on and be their candidate. “He pulls large numbers of Black voters—40% or more—in a place like Arkansas where a president, a Republican president, had to send in the 101st Airborne to desegregate the public schools.”

Indeed, Smiley joins other Black commentators like Cornel West, a highly regarded scholar of religion, philosophy, and African-American studies at Princeton University, in saying that a Huckabee candidacy on the Republican side could spell trouble for his Democratic opponent. “Huckabee’s record in Arkansas shows he has a compassion and concern for Black people. And he comes across as a real person, one with genuine religious convictions that will play well in the Black community,” he said. “If you can siphon off even a small part of the Black vote as a Republican, that’ll make a big difference.”

Among the Democratic frontrunners, Smiley said, “Barack Obama would not get my vote just because he’s Black. Hillary won’t get it just because she’s married to Bill. John Edwards won’t get it just because he started his campaign in New Orleans. I need to know where they stand on the issues.”

Although Smiley finds Hillary Clinton to be too much soulless calculation, he echoes some of the Clinton campaign’s attacks on Obama. “If Barack has the support inside the Black vote that Jesse Jackson had in ‘84 or ‘88, the race would be over right now,” he said. “Why did Jesse have that support? Because he had the track record.”

“If you look at Barack’s record in Chicago, you see that he does have a soul, a heart for Black people and their issues,” Smiley continued, still wondering if that would be enough.

“Remember the last time we rolled the dice on someone we really didn’t know?” Smiley said. “It turned out to be Clarence Thomas.”

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Smiley is also concerned with Obama’s sometimes overly conciliatory approach to politics. “I loved Barack’s book, The Audacity of Hope. I’m down with the hope he expresses,” Smiley said. “I just would like to see more audacity from the brother.”

Mano a mano
Given that the candidates for both parties will likely be determined so early in the primary season, Smiley hopes to have the likely presidential candidate from each party debate issues of interest to the Black and Brown communities even before the conventions in August.

Smiley held a forum for the Republican candidates in Baltimore last September. This year’s crop of Middle Aged White Guys—Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain—were otherwise occupied, as they were when asked to speak to the NAACP, the Urban League, Univision, and the Congressional Black Caucus. Only Huckabee showed up, and his candidacy took off, in part because of his willingness to speak to issues that matter most to Black and Brown voters. Smiley plans to use that leverage to bring the frontrunning Democratic and Republican candidates together for a debate.

A particular issue Smiley finds too often overlooked in this presidential campaign on both sides of the aisle is education.

“Malcolm X said that education is our pathway to the future. We see little discussion of education in the debates. What if we had a constitutional amendment that guaranteed every child the right to an equal, high-quality education?” Smiley asked. “That alone would turn this country upside down. That alone would address many of the other disparities our community faces.”

“You know how it works here—50 states, 50 ways of doing education,” he continued. “Washington State is at the top educationally because of the taxes it levies on its biggest businesses—Microsoft and Boeing, among others. Mississippi brings up the rear because its tax base rests on the state’s biggest export—not cotton, but catfish.”

“This is still a divided country, separate and unequal,” Smiley concluded. “Racism is the most intractable issue facing America. We have to keep raising these issues in the presidential race.”

Smiley left with the thought that the Black community is ready for a thoughtful conversation about how to make Black America better—and the candidate who best addresses that issue will attract Black voters, if not the ‘Black vote.’ “And we know that as the people of color go, so goes America.”

But Smiley cautions that Black America’s hopes do not rest with a Democrat in the White House or a Republican. “We are the leaders we’re looking for,” he said. “A strong community doesn’t need a single leader. Each of us needs to become a leader.”

For his own choice, Smiley said he’s looking for someone who stands for justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates. “You can’t lead if you don’t love; you can’t save without serving.”

Hosted by columnist and professor Anthony Asadullah Samad, the Urban Issues Forum holds discussions of urban social, economic, and political issues of interest to Los Angeles inner-city communities, usually on the third Friday of the month at the California African-American Museum at Exposition Park.

To begin the hard work of repairing the damage wrought by the Bush-Cheney Administration’s thoroughgoing assault on America’s character, soul, and reputation, we all need to participate in California’s February 5th primary. Looking for someone who stands for justice, service, and a liberating love of mankind would be a good place to start.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

-- Sharon Kyle
Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes, edits and writes for several print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. Sharon hold a Juris Doctor and is an adjunct professor of law at the People's College of Law in Los Angeles.