The most effective way of getting blacks to register and vote is to turn the election into a racial contest. It is also the easiest way to lose an election.
Political strategists plotting the future of black politics in America will have to deal with that interesting dilemma.
It will not be enough to say, as some have, that black Americans have as much right -- even duty -- to vote for their interests and their candidates as Irish Americans or any other ethnic group. The fact is that black candidacies -- particularly blacks viewed as running on a black agenda -- can spark a black electorate to life. They also awaken white opposition to blacks.
It happened in Chicago, where Harold Washington's candidacy came close to electing that city's first Republican mayor since 1931. It happened in the last presidential election, when the combination of Jesse Jackson's primary candidacy and solid black support of Walter Mondale in the general election increased substantially both black and white registration. It happened in Mississippi, where Robert Clark, running for Congress in a district with a black plurality, still lost to the white incumbent.
But if black candidacies and self-consciously black agendas tend to be self- defeating, does it follow that blacks shouldn't run or that they should support agendas that are counter to their perceived interests?
Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, thinks it's the wrong question. "The important thing," he said in an interview this week, "is to get back to a 1960s black-and-white-together strategy. I'm not sure that blacks should be unequivocally Democrats. But if they are, they must have an economic-class agenda rather than a black agenda. Jesse Jackson was successful in mobilizing the black community -- and that's important. But in spite of his 'Rainbow Coalition' strategy, the link between black and white interests wasn't made.
"Ultimately, there needs to be a shared economic-class agenda that cuts across racial lines."
And even that is far from easy -- primarily because the agenda espoused by the mostly middle-class black leadership is, at bottom, an agenda for poor blacks. And poor whites (for reasons that doubtless include racism) have never shown much willingness to form political coalitions with their black counterparts -- even in the black- and-white-together '60s, when efforts to enlist Appalachian whites in the civil rights movement fell flat.
Gans, who has just released a study of nonvoters in the recent elections, believes that in many ways the problem is less about blacks than about the role of the political parties in American life. Both major parties have abandoned their centers, he said.
What he has in mind is not the current doctrine of political centrism, which has candidates trying their best to mirror the views of their electorate, but a core of ideas that gives the parties their purpose and vitality.
He points to a finding of his recent study that shows 23 percent of the voters strongly favoring Democrats; 22 percent strongly favoring Republicans, and 55 percent not strongly favoring either party. "That 55 percent is somewhere in the area of Howard Baker Republicans and Gary Hart Democrats, people who presently have no voice in either party," he says.
But even if it were possible to restore both parties' political centers, there would remain the vexing problem of what (aside from more welfare) to do about the disproportionately black hard- core poor. Whatever shape a new political agenda might take, there remains the need for a new economic agenda that might make it possible for the bottom-of-the-barrel poor to work themselves out of their poverty.
Some serious-minded people are giving some very serious thought to just what that agenda might be.