Most commentators are dismissing as foolish the notion of a black person's running for the 1984 Democratic nomination, a proposal receiving serious and organized consideration by several blacks with leadership roles in politics and civil rights. These commentators, primarily of the white persuasion, have just about convinced me that such a black candidacy is essential. It's the arrogant, contemptuous paternalism that gets to me.
As David Brinkley & Co. chatted on their regular Sunday morning talk show on ABC a few days ago, they did only a fair job of suppressing their laughter. How naive of blacks to think they might have anything to gain from pursuing an independent political strategy! And, oh my! What a remarkable change from the riots of the '60s, offered Sam Donaldson, revealing his insensitivity to both the genesis of those riots and to the moral and political sophistication of the decades-old struggle. Miraculously, the guests on the show, Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond, managed to respond thoughtfully to this and other remarks of the all-white group of questioners; fury would have been a more natural reaction. But then again, what's the point of being furious with powerful media types who think like Martians?
Critics of this proposed black political strategy generally make three errors. First, their tone and often their words drip with insulting disbelief and ridicule. I heard no comparable mockery of Lane Kirkland's scheme for maximizing labor's influence on the nominating process, which received several skeptical but respectful reviews. This brought to mind one of Jesse Jackson's favorite arguments over the years for concerted action to exact a price from the Democrats for the continuing loyalty of blacks: Democratic candidates, officeholders, and party pooh-bahs treat black concerns with "contempt."
To me, this doesn't mean that the Democratic program--you'll excuse the phrase--is actually more damaging to the interests of most blacks than either the Republican program or the benign neglect program of neoconservative Democrats. It means, rather, that too many of the most immediate and pressing minority concerns are given such a low campaign profile that they become invisible. And once in office, Democrats put those concerns on a back burner and manage instead to make all manner of nonsense the focus for their energies. That's evidence of contempt, not respect.
Second, the prospect that the candidate would lose doesn't make the contest pointless. I would have thought this point too obvious to argue, but apparently it isn't. The right candidate, with a clear platform and an avowed go-to-the-convention-and-negotiate strategy, might attract enough money and votes, both minority and liberal, to influence the campaign debate and perhaps the convention itself. Certainly the potential explosion of minority registration and participation is based to a large extent on the candidate and a perception that victory is possible. But perhaps black political workers and voters can be persuaded that flexing political muscles for an objective short of electing a particular black candidate could have an important payoff in these hard times.
Third, the critics argue that minorities are getting all they can expect--all they deserve--from the Democratic Party already. And if any of the relatively "liberal" contenders moves further to meet minority concerns, he will be crippled in the general election. Well, if that's true, too bad. After the disappointment of the Carter presidency and the rightward drift of congressional Democrats over the past several years, it's hard to see why blacks should be satisfied with whatever policy and budgetary crumbs the current constellation of political forces will produce.
Something fairly cataclysmic is needed to rearrange the political firmament, and blind faith in the liberal candidates would be foolhardy. Every piece of evidence and history suggests that candidates are far less worried about generating vigorous black support than about courting the center-right of the party and various interest groups (including labor) whose demands often clash with those of minorities and the poor.
It will be a big surprise if Jesse Jackson doesn't run. But despite his particular appeal as an articulate candidate, his candidacy would likely be less successful at attracting money and helpful media attention than those of several others.
The underlying challenge, of course, is not in finding the ideal black standard- bearer. The ultimate tests are (1) formulating a sound set of policies, (2) mobilizing black voting strength, and (3) organizing that strength sufficiently and representing it with sufficient legitimacy to be able to negotiate with white candidates. There are other options that could be developed to serve these three functions. But if a black candidacy fulfilled these, it would have to be considered a success.
Blacks are not only just as entitled as everyone else to be organized and insistent; their overall plight makes it an imperative that they should be. If running a candidate will provide the necessary catalyst for a policy consensus and greater participation, then the PAC should have been formed yesterday. The media carping will stop when the first few million dollars are in the bank.