I concur with Thorne’s and River’s concern with the persistence of poverty in our nation. From a policy perspective, issues concerning the poor have been substantially ignored, especially in the shadow of eight years of economic expansion. The mantra of expansion was repeated so frequently that it was easy to forget that everyone didn’t benefit from it. The bottom 60 percent of our nation’s workers only saw their incomes tick up in late 1998 (though profits rose sooner). Unemployment rates were uneven and little had been done to change the two-to-one ratio between black and white unemployment. The minimum wage has not been raised since 1996.
Thorne and Rivers are right to point out shortcomings in the Democratic approach to poverty. Welfare deform, after all, was part of the tainted legacy of the Clinton administration. Even as I applaud the authors for their concern about poverty issues, and their identification of the “cardinal moral principle” of equality and special concern for the needy, I reject their notion that the Bush administration provides an alternative to the political establishment that they caustically (and inaccurately) describe as “the civil rights industry.” Furthermore, I find much of their attempt to position the Bush selection as an opportunity for African Americans to be regrettably self-serving and cynical. Exasperation with the Democratic Party need not necessarily send African Americans into the unwilling arms of wealth rewarding, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Republicans.
There are alternatives that may well empower our nation’s poorest citizens, including the development of a third party. And while it certainly makes sense to have African American people represented in every political party, these authors fail to note how strongly opposed Republicans have been, especially in the past sixteen years, to African American interests. They fail to recognize that African American closeness to Democratic Party ideals may partly be a function of a legitimate fear of the alternative.
Let’s not forget that in the 2000 election Republican candidates for the presidency tried to out-cracker each other at Bob Jones University, the South Carolina college that banned interracial dating. The two potential candidates avoided a discussion of the Confederate flag-flying over South Carolina, reverting to the loaded excuse that “states rights” allowed South Carolina to choose. In debate, the Republican vice-presidential candidate said he had no knowledge of racial profiling. Bush babbled something about “affirmative access” rather than directly answer questions about affirmative action. This symbolism is certainly less important than poverty, the so-called drug war, or other key issues. At the same time, the symbolism has repelled African Americans who might otherwise have been open to the Republican Party and made it difficult and uncomfortable for some Republicans to defend their party.
Given that, it seems petty and short-sighted of Thorne and Rivers to criticize the Congressional Black Caucus’s “staged walkout on the congressional vote that confirmed Bush as president.” Given that thousands of black votes were not counted in Florida, should the Black Caucus have stood silent, and impotent? Or should its members have made their point? Far from “politically correct preening,” the members took their marching orders from constituents who were outraged at the manner of Bush’s election. Their walkout did not reduce the poverty level by a tenth of a percentage point, but it made it clear that we will not forget the electoral abuses that took place in Florida. Sometimes politics is about theater, about making a point and staking a claim. Had the Congressional Black Caucus done less, millions of African Americans would have been disappointed.
Millions also will be disappointed if they do not do more. True, they are hampered by the composition of Congress, and by differences they struggle with inside and outside their own party. Still, stalwarts like Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) and Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) have never hesitated to take their party on. In painting the Congressional Black Caucus (and black leadership in general) with a broad, condemnatory brush, Thorne and Rivers miss that in contemporary leadership which is commendable.
After Thorne and Rivers finish sniping at black leadership, they make a set of fresh and interesting points. I am interested, for example, in their take on drug policy and their assertion that drug policies by subject to the same accountability that the Bush people say should apply to education. Their points about prevention and funding priorities are also well taken. It would be useful, though, if they also spoke of the damage done by mandatory sentencing. Unfortunately, that would require them to give credit to the “civil rights industry” that they are so determined to excoriate.
Likewise, their focus on employment and training is a sensible approach to high black unemployment rates in the new economy. They mention a number of programs that “create new forms of access and promotion for the traditionally excluded,” all exciting programs that have the potential to be replicated. They might have also mentioned recent efforts by the Department of Labor, under Clinton-appointed Secretary Alexis Herman, to focus on the out-of-school, out-of-work, eighteen-to-25 year-olds who had been enrolled neither in educational or vocational programs. Of course, acknowledging these efforts would mean adjusting their analysis of the Clinton Administration, something the authors seem unable to do.
Finally, much of this essay is an argument in support of Bush’s faith-based programs, and for more church involvement in the political and social fabric of our nation. I think the church has a responsibility to assert leadership in the African American community because it is, after all, one of our largest and oldest institutions. I am wary, though, of federally subsidized church programs. Do the authors suggest that the church will only do its work of ministering to the least and the left out if the church is subsidized? If so, it is the church that should be chastised, not the civil rights leadership.
The signs don’t say white or colored anymore. The civil rights struggle is no longer about whether black folks ride in the back of the bus, but whether we have bus fare, whether we can own the bus company, or zone the places busses ride, or determine where bus parts are imported from. The new complexity of the struggle requires a collective, multigenerational, multisectoral approach to African American issues. It will require emerging leaders to work with established ones on problems we could not have foreseen in the middle twentieth century, such as educational access and the digital divide. The authors have raised a set of issues and posed solutions that bear consideration. Their analysis is weakened, though, by their apologies for the Bush administration, and their trenchant criticism of current African American leaders. A dynamic African American future depends neither on Democrats nor Republicans, but the ways that African American people are able to tackle our issues, and leverage our political participation to produce desired outcomes.