A new direction for black politics: Power at state, local levels

A new direction for black politics: Power at state, local levels
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As African-Americans are pulled into another Democratic Party election cycle, black voters may miss the opportunity to build a sustainable political foundation for the future.

Although the campaigns of Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are compelling, these candidates ultimately will fail to deliver meaningful political benefits for the African-American community.

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By comparison, the opportunity for acquiring long-term power was portrayed in the recent midterm elections. These elections underscored a new direction for black politics in the 21st century.

To understand the implications, however, will require African-Americans to reconsider popular assumptions in the post-Obama era. Most of all, it will require civic leaders to question the undue support given to white, liberal interests that may conflict with the black political agenda.

The midterms highlighted a neglected political reality in the American system — the meaningful power that resides in the states. Yet the history of African-Americans in this arena has been one of frustration. Our quest for statewide participation has been elusive since the violent overthrow of the Reconstruction governments in the 1880s.

The 2018 elections provided an opportunity to confront this dilemma anew. Several promising candidates ran credible campaigns for governor in southern states. They fell short of the mark, but two came surprising close to breaking through the glass ceiling. It took ugly episodes of voter suppression activity and racist dog whistling to upset their momentum.

The results, however, argue for a continuation of the campaign. This is a poor time to shift attention to presidential campaigns. This is the time to double down on a sustained effort to develop political clout in the South.

A campaign of this magnitude will require black civic leaders to make this goal an imperative. Community organizations will need to prioritize the mobilization of voters and the grooming of candidates for the array of state offices elected and appointed.

This includes fielding candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, judgeships and legislative seats, among others. The outcome could be opportunities beyond expectations.

The ultimate goal is to establish a base of power capable of addressing the core needs of black communities. The outcome would be far more rewarding than the marginal benefits currently gained as a weak partner in the national coalition.

Truth is, a new direction in black politics may require people to think outside the box of the conventional. Should the black Democrats of South Carolina consider shifting support to Republican Sen. Tim Scott? Would a strategy of selective crossover voting empower him to promote the interests of his people in conservative circles?

The recent gubernatorial campaigns set a benchmark for the margin of votes needed to potentially win in two key states: In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum lost to Republican Rick DeSantis by only 35,000 votes out of nearly 8 million votes cast. In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by about 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast.

Are there ways to close the gaps in the years ahead? In Florida, the solution may rest with the reinstatement of the vote to ex-felons: Voters passed a state constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of 1.4 million ex-felons, about a third of them African-American men. If engaged, these people potentially could swing future elections in favor of the interests of their community.

Most intriguing is the situation in Georgia. African-American voters and white allies came close to winning the top office. Victory very well could be accomplished through an initiative to grow the voter base.

In this regard, a program of voluntary migration could help. It would involve a marketing campaign to encourage blacks in depressed northern cities — and perhaps in less politically competitive neighboring states — to consider Georgia as a destination. Among the merits would be the goal of relative political autonomy.

The idea may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. In 1916, for example, the Chicago Defender promoted an exodus of sharecroppers to northern cities to flee conditions of oppression. Many thousands of people heeded the call of publisher Robert Abbott.

Over a century later, it may be time to consider a new migration. This would be a call to responsible individuals to establish residency in Georgia in support of building up the African-American voter base.

People near or in retirement may be in the best position for lobbying. They would have the advantage of relative financial security from the pensions, Social Security benefits, and other assets earned during working years.  

Indeed, now is the time for a new direction in black political thinking. Rather than chasing the illusion of power of a presidential campaign, black America has a chance to acquire real influence in the states where it counts.

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has produced VictoryStride.com, a library research guide on African-American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African-American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”