Things Ain't What They Use To Be by Brad Lena

Is political opportunity knocking on the door of the black electorate? After the 2002 mid-term elections, I'd say yes. In fact, I'd say it's pounding on the damn door. Several economic, social and political factors have converged to present interesting options to the black electorate. While I have long felt that the term "black vote" implied a uniformity that impoverishes the richness of black culture and opinion, the term reflects, however, a certain political reality much as the "union vote" or the "senior vote." Plenty of pundits have discussed the level of black participation in the recent elections and there's no need to rehash those arguments here. My hunch is that the black electorate intuitively and rightly understood that history has passed by the current political arrangement and that the political allegiance, forged many decades earlier, is increasingly unable to meet the needs of the black electorate now and in the future.

Given the current political division in America, at both the state and national level, a couple of things can be said. One is that the Democrats do not and cannot win elections without the black vote. It should be noted that the Democrats, astutely sensing the fissures within the black vote, are working to replace it with the "Hispanic vote." The other is that the Republicans, "believing" that they are looking at an historic opportunity to extend their governance, would value the black vote to cushion their margin of votes. Literally, the black electorate can play the "king maker" and tip power into the hands of either party. The dominant political parties have a number of competing internal constituencies whose agendas are in conflict with the larger aims of the parties and whose votes may not be deliverable. As retaining, acquiring or maintaining power is the name of the game for the dominant parties; the black voting block is in the drivers seat.

This opportunity is not a long-term proposition. Eventually, the Democrats will regroup and replace the black vote with another voting block. The Republicans, on the other hand, may decide to continue to write off the black vote and seek to extend their governance through other means. Either or both may happen and once again the agenda of the black electorate will be on the back burner. This does not have to be so if the black electorate is willing and able can play power politics. That "if" is a big question. Accessing this historic opportunity means abandoning the existing subservience to the Democrats and repudiating the "official" black conduits of petition to the white political structure. It means leveraging, with a vengeance, the power of the black vote with little regard of the interests of either dominant party. Unfortunately, it also means ignoring, at least temporarily, the aspirations of emerging third parties. As I said, this is power politics. If the dominant parties wish to maintain, reclaim or extend their rule they must, at least for the short term, have the black vote.

To be sure, the task at hand is large, very large. I do not underestimate that fact. I also do not underestimate the resilience, resourcefulness, industriousness and ingenuity of the black community. How these resources can be harnessed is the crux of the matter. The main issues are fairly straightforward and revolve around education, access to capital and social stability. All three of these issues suffer in varying degrees from fraud, abuse, exclusion and social pathologies. The formulation of policies to address these issues must come, I believe, from within the black electorate as the traditional channels of black political access have long been compromised. I can imagine, for lack of a better name, a "Contract with Black America" being formulated around a few wisely selected issues and presented it to the dominant parties saying, this is the admission ticket to the black vote. If one party or both is willing to begin a dialogue, engage them in discussions, after all, politics is the art of compromise. Ultimately, if the black electorate is willing to play the "vote" card, the major parties will be doing most of the compromising. If the dominant parties reject the "contract" or some other platform for black interest, how is the black electorate worse off? Actually, it would expose certain realities about the attitudes of the dominant parties and that is useful knowledge as well.

Where will the initiatives, the policies and the philosophical framework for this contract originate? It's doubtful that it will come from the current black political or academic leadership as they have too much invested in the existing political arrangement or are pursuing issues that only the luxury of tenure affords. All the talent, intellectual and financial resources exist within the sphere of what could be called the black enterprise. I'm speaking of the top tier of men and women from the fields of business, entertainment, publishing, technology and sports to name a few. Why these people? Because they engaged the cultural, social, political and economic environment as it is, not how it should have been or how it should be or how it will be. In spite of substantial adversity they succeeded. Can you think of a group of people better qualified to engage the core issues of education, access to capital and social stability? Of course, a gathering like this could turn into a media circus replete pompous positioning and self-aggrandizement. It doesn't have to be. I would consider excluding the traditional arbitrators of the black electorate's agenda. They have had their chance, it's almost 2003 and the results are in. It's time to let those who have lived the phrase "where the rubber meets the road" and came away with most of their rubber intact propose an alternative vision, a new path, a new dream.

Ask yourself this question, who can provide people with the attitudes, philosophy and determination to reengineer the system Cornell West or Oprah Winfrey? I'd vote for Ms. Winfrey. Like her or not, she built a media empire and challenged the status quo. She is a force to be reckoned where it counts meaning influence, power and money. Cornell West lectures at elite universities. Who is the better teacher?

I recall a saying, it may be from Confucius, and it observed that there is opportunity in crisis. The electorate is split, power is divided and voter turnout is continuing to sink. The dominant political parties are in crisis of votes. Like I said, opportunity is knocking.

Will anybody answer the door?

Brad Lena is a regular contributor to Mr. Lena is based in Asheville, NC and can be reached at

Brad Lena

Monday, December 2, 2002