But for racism, we are told, California's Tom Bradley would be the first black in America to be elected governor. He had been leading in the polls, though by a shrinking margin, before the election. At the last minute, however, in the privacy of the voting booth, a lot of white people simply could not pull the lever to elect a black man governor.
But for racism, Robert Clark would be the first black Mississippian to serve in the U.S. Congress since 1883. Like Bradley, he had been leading in the polls after winning the Democratic nomination in a heavily Democratic district. But a sufficient number of white voters subordinated their party loyalty to their racism, and they elected Webb Franklin, a white Republican.
That is what we are being told, and I don't doubt for a minute that it is true. Nor do I doubt the obvious conclusion: that race is still a major factor in American politics.
But isn't there another, far more encouraging conclusion to be drawn from these same facts? After all, the fact that Bradley led his successful rival George Deukmejian in the pre-election polls, the fact that he had already been elected (and remains) mayor of Los Angeles, and the fact that he lost to the state attorney general by only 52,295 votes -- less than one percentage point -- should tell us that race is no longer an insurmountable political handicap.
The same is true in the case of Robert Clark, who garnered 49 percent of nearly 150,000 votes cast.
It's fair enough to say that racism thwarted the chances of these two men to rewrite American history. But isn't it fair to acknowledge that neither would have come close in the effort except for the fact that a lot of white people swallowed their racism and voted for a black candidate? And, at a time when we are citing a resurgence of racism, when the Ku Klux Klan is attempting a comeback, isn't it worth noting that a lot of white voters, even in Mississippi, were saying that a candidate's race isn't the only pertinent factor?
That, in my view, is one of two most heartening facts of the recent election. The other is the demonstrated significance of the black vote, even in races where no blacks are running.
Take Illinois, for instance, where Adlai Stevenson III is demanding a recount in his apparent hairsbreadth loss to incumbent Gov. Jim Thompson. That race, in which the two candidates were separated by fewer than 6,000 votes (out of 3.6 million votes cast), would not have been even close but for the overwhelming pro-Stevenson votes of black Chicagoans. That total was boosted by a special October registration drive that added between 125,000 and 200,000 black voters to the Chicago rolls.
Figures like those are easy to overlook in the absence of clear-cut success, but Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.) isn't among those doing the overlooking. The first-term black congressman announced last week that he will run for mayor of Chicago, in an effort to unseat incumbent Jane Byrne.
Maybe he would have declared anyway. Black discontent with Byrne has been high for sometime. But surely the political clout displayed by black Chicagoans, even in a losing cause, must have made the decision easier.
Blacks have demonstrated their ability to influence elections across the country. That influence would assume formidable proportions if they will choose to spend less time crying about their near- misses and more time registering and voting.