Satirist Mark Russell has proved depressingly accurate in defining the Republicans' "Rainbow Coalition" as "white, off-white, ivory bone and French vanilla." Though many will prefer to dismiss the message in the landslide vote to reelect President Reagan, there was a sharp and disturbing contrast between black and white voting patterns across the country. Whites voted nearly 2 to 1 for Ronald Reagan -- 3 to 1 in the South -- while blacks were going nearly 9 to 1 for Walter Mondale, joined by other low-income voters and a majority of the Jewish vote. The fact that blacks found more comfort in the Democratic candidate may be no historical surprise. But is this sharp gulf between black and white voting patterns a manifestation of a new racial polarization?
Certainly alienation is nothing new to blacks, who don't need political leaders to tell them about unequal opportunities or about concerns of theirs that more often than not fall on deaf ears in Democratic as well as Republican circles. They can see the utter failure of the Reagan administration to relate to black people at a level much beyond Rose Garden photo opportunities with athletes and musicians and vague urgings to join the rest of the mainstream in getting back to work and celebrating what's good about America.
There is an assumption here that the opportunities for blacks to participate and prosper in an America that is feeling better are equal to those of anybody else, that no special handicapping is necessary.
Off-base racial perceptions are not in themselves racist. Some of those whites who seem to be turning away from the old Democratic more-money-for-more-programs formula, for instance, equate welfare, training and affirmative action programs with tax increases, favoritism, lowering job standards and undercutting the free-enterprise system. This is a distorted reading, but it is not without some truth. There have been excesses in many of the "solutions" that Democrats have tried and more than a few bubble-headed proposals for perfecting society by rules, regulations and sanctions.
The danger now is that the administration -- as well as its loyal opposition -- still won't reach out to listen to what thoughtful blacks have to say and to what they have already said over and over to themselves because others haven't looked to them as people with any diversity or sophistication.
If Democrats are going to do any serious soul-searching, they must include some soul in the process -- and not merely append the names of minority members to proposals and campaigns for the sake of political cosmetics.
More than a year ago, Clifford L. Alexander, former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and secretary of the Army, wrote about meeting separately with Walter Mondale, Sen. John Glenn and Sen. Gary Hart to suggest that each bring together "black and white people they respected and trusted" to exchange thoughts about the usefulness of present programs; the role of the president in fostering racial harmony; what employers could do to further improve opportunities for minorities; what forces create the perceptions blacks and whites have of each other and how these perceptions affect behavior.
If there were any meetings of this kind, they never made news or reached any voters who might want to know. And if you go back to the party convention in San Francisco, there was this same oversight in the Mondale campaign: veteran black politicians were perplexed and infuriated by an absence of any significant black influence in the top echelons. They expected a quicker response from Mondale, whose record on civil rights was strong and sincere.
But many of these same black politicians muffled their own concerns, their philosophical diversities and their political expertise to defer to Jesse Jackson -- even as they were whispering deep reservations about his campaign. Some would argue that they had to cover their anguish and rise to his defense in the early stages when too many white people didn't take the candidacy seriously. But in leaving the articulation -- and mistakes -- to one man, they forfeited political capital, and wound up cooling their heels during his volatile negotiations with the Mondale people.
On the day after his landslide, President Reagan was asked at a press conference if he had "anything to say this morning to the people who apparently feel they didn't vote for you yesterday -- specifically, the blacks, the poor, single mothers, those people whom studies show to be in fact somewhat worse off than they were." His reply was that "they aren't any worse off than they were. And that, again, has been some political demagoguery. . . ."
It is not that presidents and politicians should be constantly playing up to any one race; for that matter, it is this very sort of checklist, special-interest treatment of groups and causes that seems to be backfiring on the Democratic Party now. Black people shouldn't have to be regarded as a special interest; they should be regarded as a serious interest that is constant and all-inclusive. Unless the president or the party that opposed him makes this plain, the alienation and frustration of blacks -- and the mirroring disinterest and coolness among whites -- will grow -- until the pressures find a rude outlet.