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The Candidates Are Snubbing Minorities and Their Issues

February 22, 1988|CHARLES R. STITH | Rev. Charles R. Stith, an ordained Methodist minister, is national president of the Organization for New Equality , based in Boston. and

As I watch the 1988 presidential campaign unfold and witness the lack of attention given minorities and the issues that affect them, it calls to mind the refrain from a popular protest song of the early 1970s: The campaign "makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands."

This frustration is a result of the fact that we have been inundated with reports of racism--from Al Campanis to Forsyth County to Jimmy the Greek to Howard Beach. It is incredible that the candidates continue to run their campaigns based on conventional political considerations.

Racism manifests itself through means not just violent and vocal, but also economic. Given that the economic manifestation has not been sufficiently addressed, it makes the silence of the candidates all the more damning. Though less dramatic than what we were told about the other racial incidents, the economic aspect is no less staggering:

--The average white family in America is worth about $40,000, the average black family is worth about $3,200.

--Minorities are still unemployed at almost twice the general rate. When employed, they earn a little more than half as much.

--Almost half of the black and Latino youth 18 years old and under live in poverty.

The candidates seem to be approaching this political season from the perspective of business as usual. We have seen black mayors snubbed and any number of invitations to address the minority community refused or ignored.

From a moral perspective, the candidates' lack of response to the racial violence--Howard Beach is by no means an isolated incident--is a sad commentary on their sense of our struggle over the last 30 years to bring our nation together across color, class and community lines. In addition, given the volatility of the economy and the tenuous economic position of minorities and women, there is no excuse for this deafening silence.

It suggests that if they as leaders are unconcerned, so should be the country they seek to lead. Their silence suggests that people of color are somehow less important.

This lack of campaign activity in the minority community is ill-conceived. How soon candidates seem to forget that Democrats regained control of the U.S. Senate by riding the crest of a wave of black electoral support. History has shown, for Democrats at least, that a large turnout is essential for victory. How do they expect the minority community to get excited about their campaigns when candidates are so unexcited about minority concerns?

Most of the recent polling data indicates that members of minority communities, and the black community in particular, no longer see themselves as dyed-in-the wool Democrats. Thus, it is a Democratic error to cynically assume they have the vote because minorities have nowhere else to go; for the Republicans to likewise not pursue the minority vote would be an error because it would represent a missed opportunity to court a constituency looking for a candidate and a party that cares.

I'm sure there are some who will point to Jesse Jackson's presence in the presidential race as the reason the other candidates are ignoring the minority community. My response: That is a cop-out.

The disproportionate burden of poverty and violence that people of color have to bear certainly is something to which Jackson might be more sensitive. But these are not just Jackson's issues. These are American problems. All of the candidates have an obligation to address them.

Beyond the moral obligation, when one applies a numbers criteria, the strategy to ignore the minority community still does not add up. For both parties, with the presidential field as crowded as it is, whatever percentage of the minority vote they get could mean the difference between a win, place or show. For Democrats facing the inevitability of a second or third ballot for the nomination, alienating potential second- or third-ballot support is unwise. To use Jackson's presence as a rationale for ignoring the minority community is not only a poor excuse, it is a significant mistake.

While it is important to point out the highly visible incidents of racism, it is just as important to highlight the less sensational, but more insidious, silence on these issues by those who seek to lead this country. We must hold them accountable and challenge them on the matters of equality, justice and economic opportunity.

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