Are we seeing a new black politics? Consider:
*Virginia's voters, 80-plus percent white, elected Douglas Wilder, who is black, lieutenant governor. Wilder traveled to every county in the state, stressed his 16 years' experience in the legislature and spotlighted, in a brilliant ad, his endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police. No great effort was made to mobilize black voters or turn them out.
*A majority of black voters in New Jersey voted for incumbent Republican Gov. Thomas Kean. They did so even though the Democrat, Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro, had over half the state's blacks as his constituents and had won over 90 percent of their votes before. Kean campaigned as a supporter of tax cuts and enterprise zones -- Reagan programs -- though he opposed administration civil rights policy.
*President Reagan's positive job rating among blacks increased from around 10 to as much as 37 percent positive in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. This is still far below his rating among whites. But it almost surely represents a softening of a hard-edged and bitter opposition that was well-nigh universal among blacks for four years. So the change in intensity probably extends well beyond the 37 percent.
These changes occur at a time when there is visible dissatisfaction, among blacks as well as whites, with traditional black leaders and their prescriptions. The underlying assumption of black leaders and of most black Americans for almost 20 years has been that blacks must seek two things from politics and government. The first is generous government spending, on welfare programs and for those with special needs. The second is racial preference in jobs, school admissions, and elsewhere.
It was taken for granted that these two policies were desirable, and that once they were put fully into effect blacks would get equality and justice. If you assume that, it makes sense to regard Ronald Reagan as an enemy and to vote almost entirely for Democrats. It makes sense also for black politicians to concentrate on enunciating those policies, even if they have to stick to the currently rather limited constituencies that will support them.
The Wilder campaign, the black vote for Kean and the softening of opposition to Reagan suggest that support for the central underlying assumption of black politics is crumbling. Not as completely as some would have you believe: the recent Lichter survey which purported to contrast opinions of black leaders and ordinary blacks was filled with loaded questions and strained conclusions. Blacks aren't buying Charles Murray's solution.
A large majority of blacks still seem to believe that generous spending and racial preference are desirable. But probably fewer blacks than before believe that they are necessary for black progress. And almost certainly most blacks today do not believe that generous spending and racial preference are sufficient. Something more or some things else are needed if blacks are to live equally and comfortably in America.
Blacks have been signaling by their personal behavior and are now making it clear in their political choices that they do not regard the old underlying assumptions as sufficient:
1)Personal behavior: consider the increased self-discipline, encouraged by community opinion, that is reflected by statistics such as higher test scores in big-city school systems, lower crime rates in central cities, and (yes) lower numbers of illegitimate births to teen-agers.
2)Political choices: a willingness to vote for a Republican such as Kean when a few years ago blacks weren't even voting for Republicans such as Jacob Javits or Clifford Case; an increased respect and diminishing hatred for Ronald Reagan; a favorable inclination toward market-oriented programs such as enterprise zones and school vouchers. Black politicians and voters have quit concentrating exclusively on the increasingly more difficult battles for more generous spending and racial preference, accepting as other Americans do the levels as they are at present; and they are ready to consider other things.
So what we can expect in the future are a black electorate increasingly willing to vote for Republicans and for Democrats who do not accept the old prescriptions of spending and preference, and black politicians who, like Douglas Wilder, will not campaign or govern with those prescriptions as their platform.
You might say that blacks are giving up on some of their political goals. But by becoming again (as they were up through 1960) a key swing bloc in the electorate and by generating a larger number of black politicians able to win elections outside the limited (and already maximized) number of black-majority constituencies, blacks may be gaining political clout at the same time they are, through greater self-discipline and community sanctions, achieving greater personal success. Or at least we can hope so.