When Jesse Jackson ran for president during the 1980s, as when I ran in 2004, there were progressives in America just like there are today. Those progressives were well meaning individuals and politicians who shared our views and strongly believed in what we believed in. Despite this progressive political presence, our presidential campaigns were so important and necessary because the voices of black, brown and poorer white voters were not heard by the elites in American politics and government. Our agendas were not getting carried out. There was a great deal of talk back then, but no real action. That same dynamic holds true today.
The press speaks a great deal about the supposed fact that the “Democratic base” is riled up and activated by the state of play in America. This assessment ignores the most important segment of that base: the African-American voter. We are not motivated by anyone right now. While Sen. Bernie Sanders did a remarkable job in the 2016 presidential primaries and went further than anyone thought possible, he did so without the African-American vote, losing among African-American voters by more than 50 percentage points.
While that progressive coalition purported to speak FOR the African-American voter, it did not talk TO African Americans. The so-called Hillary Clinton base of the party, while crushing Sanders, attracted substantially fewer black voters to turn out than in recent presidential primaries, and in the general election, running against a novice, the black voter turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, falling 7 percentage points compared to 2012. Arguably, that disinterested black vote cost Clinton the presidency.
It would be unfair to claim that leaders like Clinton and Sanders do not care about issues that are important to people of color. They do. However, it is equally inaccurate to claim that the current progressive movement is fueling African-American participation or interest in our political process. It is not. Blacks largely sit on the sidelines while the game of politics is being played around us. In the post-Obama era there is the sense that Democrats feel people of color — African Americans in particular — have had their chance and that we should now take a back seat to new leadership and let them handle the politics of today. However, such a sentiment is both foolhardy and wrong.
POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media
The 21st century version of the rainbow coalition lacks vision and color. Remarkably, blacks still need to fight for a seat at the table and are too often simply stage props for allied elected leaders to make their points. Consider this: In 2016, when the officially independent Sanders ran for president as a Democrat, there were more black chiefs of staff in the Senate working for Republicans (1) than for Sanders (0) or the Democrats (0).
Talk is not enough anymore to be on the righteous path for justice and black political participation. Nor is caring about, or sympathy over, unjust policies. An effective progressive movement is more than an intellectual exercise espousing policy goals: it requires action and results. And people of color need to be at the table in large enough numbers to help make that difference. We cannot depend upon action from well-meaning progressives or others who want to fight our fight for us. History proves that change comes too slowly when we rely on that model.
Perhaps it is time for another African-American presidential campaign to fuel black voter interest. Perhaps it’s time to remind people that progressive politics cannot be advanced without results and a fully vibrant rainbow of colors working to make that difference. Two things are certain: African Americans will not be taken for granted again and progressives invite failure yet again if they try.
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