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America's Disappearing 'Black Vote'

March 26, 2004|Todd Boyd

Media commentators and pundits won't be able to phone it in this year, offering the same tired cliches about black voters and politicians. Instead, the pundits will have to recondition their minds if they are to fully appreciate the profound shifts in the black political landscape and, in turn, American politics.

To begin, consider this question: What happened to "the black vote"? Once a hot topic of discussion during presidential campaigns, it has been noticeably absent in recent years. Instead, it is the Latino swing vote that appears to be "in play" right now, with both parties vying for this group's attention in the presidential race.

It's not all that hard to figure out why. Over the years, Democrats have come to take the black vote for granted. And why shouldn't they, as long as blacks vote overwhelmingly and unwaveringly Democratic?

Republicans feel the converse: No matter what they do -- even with prominent African American figures like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in high places -- they now realize that their appeal to black voters in large numbers remains limited. So, why address this constituency? Latinos, by contrast, are up for grabs.

A cursory glance across the political landscape reveals another fact: There are no African American politicians with a substantial presence on the national stage who demand any real respect.

In the 1970s and 1980s, black elected officials were leading the way in creating a new culture of leadership throughout the country, with prominent elections to the mayor's office and beyond. Black politicians like Coleman Young, Tom Bradley and Maynard Jackson made history when they were elected mayor in some of the nation's largest cities. The trend continued in the 1980s when figures like Harold Washington and David Dinkins rode to victory in their own areas. Black politicians were becoming a powerful celebrity class, but today, rappers and athletes seem to have stolen their thunder.

Instead, we now get the recent presidential aspirations of Al Sharpton -- who has neither the visibility of his predecessors nor the support of black voters in large numbers.

Though some speculated that Sharpton would do well in states like South Carolina, where a large percentage of the electorate was black, in fact he fared poorly. He was simply not seen as someone who could get elected, and in 2004, black people are looking for something more than the symbolic victories that the Rev. Jesse Jackson won in the 1980s.

The truth is that black voters in South Carolina have about as much in common with Al Sharpton as Sharpton does with Condoleezza Rice. To assume that African Americans would automatically vote for Sharpton just because he is black is to erroneously assume that African Americans are a singular entity, walking in lock step to the beat of some invisible voodoo drummer.

And this is part of what's going on now in black politics, 40 years after the civil rights movement. As more and more African Americans move into the middle, upper-middle and wealthiest classes of society, the use of race as the sole defining factor in one's identity is an increasingly fractured concept.

It could be argued that much of what defines the large underclass of black people in this society has to do with class as much as it does with race these days, though the two issues are not mutually exclusive. Further, issues like gender, sexual orientation, age and geographic location are increasingly playing into one's overall sense of identity as well.

It is for this reason that I find myself cringing at blanket statements like the "black community" and the "black vote" -- these phrases continue to minimize the broad scope of contemporary black identity.

Sure, many black Americans continue to register as Democrats, but not as they used to. Today there is no more a monolithic "black vote" than there is a "white vote," and this is another reason we haven't heard anything about it lately -- because it no longer truly exists, at least not the way we have understood it in the past.

The real issue is that black people are becoming more "American" by the hour, moving from a defined group identity to a more individualized sense of being. If anything, Sept. 11 prompted questions of national identity, and African Americans passed with flying colors. Blacks, in many ways, have become mainstream.

The mainstream seldom gets attention; its presence is assumed. The new African American mainstream must accept the fact that though membership has its privileges, one cannot be both marginal and mainstream at the same time.

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Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television, is the author, most recently, of "Young Black Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture" (Doubleday, 2003).

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