On paper, Elihu Harris should have been a shoo-in to win the Assembly seat in last week's special election in Oakland. Harris is a former mayor of Oakland, a former long-term assemblyman who had represented the area and one of the state's most respected black politicians. His major opponent was a white attorney. Yet Harris failed to get a majority of the vote and was forced into a runoff in March against a Green Party candidate.
The fact that he could not win outright the Assembly seat he once held in a city where blacks are a near majority tells us why many African American leaders are engaged in much hand-wringing and a deep soul search over the sinking political fortunes of blacks in state politics.
In 1996, the state Legislature had 10 black members. Today there are six, and all of them represent districts located in a narrow band that runs south of the Santa Monica Freeway and east of the Long Beach Freeway in L.A. County. At the same time that blacks have sped backward politically in state politics, Latinos have rocketed forward. Latinos hold 24 Senate and Assembly seats, make up 20% of the Legislature and hold some of the most visible positions in state government.
The sharp decline of blacks in state politics is blamed on voter apathy, alienation, inner-city population drops, suburban integration and displacement by Latinos who have bigger numbers and, some claim, more political savvy than blacks. But there's another reason for the political crash dive, a reason that many blacks are loath to admit. It's called class division.
There are no longer two Americas in conflict, one black and one white. There's also the conflict between a prospering and expanding black middle class and an increasingly desperate and destitute black poor. The class, income, education and political rift between them is as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon.
The agenda of the black middle class--strengthen affirmative action programs, more corporate promotions, college scholarships, business loans and integration--has little or no appeal to the black poor. Their struggle is for jobs, increased income, drug and crime prevention programs, better neighborhood schools and services and an end to police abuse.
The issues of school vouchers and the recent election of Jerry Brown as Oakland mayor are two glaring examples of the gulf between blacks. Opinion polls repeatedly show that school vouchers are wildly popular with many black low-income and working-class parents. They will grab at anything to get their kids out of crime-ridden and deteriorating public schools. But black elected officials and mainstream black leaders almost universally oppose vouchers, claiming they will destroy public education.
In the Oakland mayor's race, Brown, a white candidate, trounced several black candidates. Many black voters perceived that he would fight harder to combat poverty and crime than the black candidates. This shift in black interests should have sent a strong message to current or prospective black elected officials that guilt-laced appeals for black solidarity and voter registration caravans and buses are not going to make blacks dash to the polls to vote for politicians they feel have failed them. That will change if and when black politicians find a way to reconnect with the black poor and craft an agenda that can motivate, inspire and renew their belief that black office-seekers care about them too. Black elected officials must also broaden their agenda to build coalitions and alliances with Latinos and Asians.
The cruel truth is that black elected officials are at a crossroads in California politics. Those who can adapt to the rapidly changing class and ethnic realities in California will survive and be effective players in state politics; those who can't will continue to vanish from state politics.