Recently I supported Donald Payne over Peter Rodino, the incumbent congressman, in a primary election in the Tenth District of New Jersey. The voters of the district spoke. I accept their decision and intend to give Rep. Rodino my full support in the general election.
Yet on June 8, The Washington Post in an editorial joined other commentators in censoring my behavior. Because Rodino is white and Payne is black, I am accused of being a "reverse racist" -- choosing to support black candidates over whites solely because of race.
This charge is nonsense. The very essense of the Rainbow Coalition is an understanding that America is not a single-color blanket -- all red or white or blue -- but a quilt with many patches and pieces and colors.
Why did I support Donald Payne over Peter Rodino in the New Jersey primary?
1) Some commentators imply that I supported an unqualified black candidate over a qualified liberal.
But I came to the aid of an excellent candidate for national office. Payne is a two-term Newark city council member; a past president of the national YMCA. He has helped lead the new political forces in the district. He is pro-labor, pro-civil rights, pro-peace, pro-women's rights. He is a strong advocate of economic sanctions against apartheid in South Africa.
Rodino has had an honorable career in Congress and fine record on civil rights. His seniority made the choice a difficult one. But he has chosen not to make himself a leader of the new politics in his district. Surely it is not too harsh to suggest that the Democratic Party could have benefited from a new energetic member prepared to struggle for a progressive agenda.
2) I was asked by my supporters in the district to support Payne. In 1984, Payne supported the Rainbow Coalition's challenge; Rodino supported Walter Mondale over my candidacy. The district gave me 70 percent of its vote in the presidential primary.
3) The Tenth District has changed from a white ethnic majority to a black majority. The new majority has different imperatives. One of these is for a new visible black leader who can offer promise to the young, energy to the downtrodden and hope to the cynical.
There has never been a black congressman in the history of New Jersey, a state with an 11 percent black population and 14 congressional districts. This was in part a reflection of gerrymandered districts. Thus, in 1970, the court ordered redistrcting so that blacks would have an equal opportunity to be represented.
4) The Post editorial suggests that the days of racial justice are around the corner. "Certainly," The Post said, "in the past black politicians were defeated or deterred from running because whites would not consider voting for them. But that is much less the case today."
But a few remarkable exceptions do not refute the sorry rule. Blacks are nerly 12 percent of the population, but of the 500,000 elected and appointed public officials in this country only about 6,000 -- slightly over 1 percent -- are black. In the 115 southern congressional districts from Virginia to Texas -- home to 53 percent of the country's blacks -- there is one black congressman. In the rest of the country there are only 19 more black congressmen. There are no black governors or U.S. senators. The light at the end of the unnel is still very dim.
Women fare little bettter. Fifty-three percent of the population is fmale, yet there only two women in the Senate and 23 in the House. Only 14.8 percent of state legislators are women.
Racial and sexual patterns of discrimination are not imaginary, nor are they just matters of history. Gerrymandered sitricts abound; dual primaries; impediments to registration and mobilization; an old-boy network that excludes too many.
We seek a new equation with blacks, Hispanics and other minorities and women joining whites in political leadership, moving in a more just direction for the country. This demand ruffles feathers; it upsets old patterns and challenges old leaders. Change is not painless, but pain is the gateway through which we must pass to new life and new hope.
We must bring the downtrodden, the despised and the disconnected into the political process -- to insipre them to organize and mobilize and to choose political action over private reaction. In this effort, it is vital that new leaders arise, that the new equation of women, blacks, browns and other mminorities join to create a new direction for the country. New voices and energy will help point the way. Donald Payne will be one of these in New jersey. I am proud to have supported him.