Runaway Slaves

John Kerry's defeat signals that it is time for a slave revolt on the Democratic Party plantation

Malcolm X once delivered a speech about the difference between a “field Negro” and a “house Negro” in the time of slavery. According to Brother Malcolm, a “house Negro” worked inside the slavemaster’s house as a domestic servant and pathologically “loved his master more than he loved himself.” He contrasted this with the field Negro, the masses of the slave population. These slaves never got the benefits of living in the master’s house—the food, clothes, shelter, feeling of superiority—and they were infinitely more bitter at their plight than the slaves in the house. As he would put it, “if the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would…while the field Negro would pray for a breeze to pick up.” Well, on Nov. 2, 2004, the master’s house on the Democratic Party plantation went up in epic flames And while the Congressional Black Caucus and the Jesse Jacksons of the world try to rebuild the house that Clinton built, I, for one, am praying for a breeze.

I almost enjoyed the predictable whining of the liberal establishment on campus and beyond as they stretched their mental faculties to comprehend what went wrong last Tuesday. A host of possible explanations for Kerry’s loss have pushed to the forefront. A small sampling of my favorites include: gay marriage, “moral values,” the “success” of the war on terror and perhaps the most popular last resort of the liberal elite—the sheer stupidity of half the country. Some of the more insightful members of the left have rightly placed much of the blame on John Kerry’s almost comical awkwardness as a campaigner. His inability to weave a coherent theme throughout his campaign other than “I’m not Bush” should serve as a lesson in how not to campaign for generations. However, the main reasons that Democrats did not win the White House in 2000 or 2004 (and probably will not win until John McCain finishes his term in 2016) are that the Democrats running for national office, and the machinery that supports them, rely more on blatant focus group pandering than a coherent, marketable ideology and, even more lamentably, they do not take care of their base.

I want to address the latter point here. Republicans simply take care of their base, respect them and value their contributions. Bush speaks proudly of being an evangelical Christian and appoints others to high office, like the recently-resigned John Ashcroft, who use their positions of authority to carry out an agenda that is highly favorable to the issues that evangelicals hold dear. Regardless of the logic or morality of this behavior, you cannot deny that this is a productive and visible way of reaching out to and securing a political base.

On the other hand, Democrats have treted black voters like an embarrassing stepchild. Despite turning out over 85 percent of their vote for such American heroes as Walter Mondale, black voters get nowhere near the gushing policy love from Democrats that the Republican base gets from their party. And to be fair, this is not even entirely the Democrats’ fault. Black voters have honestly allowed their votes to be given away like free iPods. Every election season, a parade of proven vote pimps roll through black churches to recite Hallmark card versions of Martin Luther King speeches and promise that our good Democratic friends will not forget the partnership forged in the civil rights era and that only they can protect us from the terrifying racism of the Republican party. In exchange for empty promises and rhetoric that ages more like milk than wine, black voters turn out in droves. After 2000’s distressing election Democrats swore to us (again) that they would not let us be disenfranchised. Bush’s record is indeed abysmal, but the lack of respect that John Kerry and the Democratic establishment showed black voters is ridiculous. It is also, unfortunately, our fault.

Therefore, I propose that black America put forth a new set of demands for the Democrats to meet in order for black votes to be cast for the next Democratic nominee. First, Democrats must push for a new voting rights amendment that guarantees everyone the right to vote, not just protection from its denial. The Republicans have now mastered black voter suppression like Jordan did his jumpshot. If black votes were counted fairly, Bush would probably be somewhere in Texas reading books upside down—in 2000 and 2004. If Democrats really want black votes, it is imperative that they work tirelessly to protect black voters whose rights have been violated by faulty equipment, ill-motivated voter challenges and the manipulation of vote totals from electronic machines. Kerry and John Edwards proclaimed, with sermonic intensity, that they would fight for every vote to be counted, but black voters are left to fight ballot battles we thought were won in 1965.

Secondly, the Democrats should make inroads on Republican ideological turf and attempt to refocus dialogue. Specifically, two areas that are ripe for the taking are the debate on criminal justice and faith-based initiatives. The proposition in California that sought to reform their infamous “three strikes” laws was defeated, but the support may be present nationwide to curtail the growth of the prison-industrial complex. Curbing mass incarceration would certainly curry favor with black voters, and it wouldn’t even have to be cast as an explicitly racial issue. The unchecked growth of the penal system should be construed as a fiscal burden and ineffective crime deterrent. What should help Democrats convey this message is that it is actually true—but after watching Kerry get punked about his tour in Vietnam by a guy who couldn’t even show up for National Guard duty, who really knows?

Thirdly, Democrats can hone in on faith-based initiatives. If there’s one thing that 2004 taught us, it is that much of America is quite fond of Jesus. So are most black voters. If Democrats were to back faith-based initiatives that provide supplemental education to public schooling (e.g., the Martin Luther King Afterschool Initiative run in Dorchester by Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies and Rev. Eugene Rivers) and outreach to poor communities, this would win back the Black vote and help fight the perception of Democrats as godless heathens who want to turn the entire country into a gay pride parade. It could also remind people that the when the Bible is not talking about gay people for a page or two it also says things like “Help poor people!” and “Love thy neighbor!”

These issues aren’t the only starting points for conversations between Democrats and blacks. Certainly affirmative action or environmental racism or AIDS treatment and prevention could work, too. But if played correctly, any significant movement on these policy issues would show a tremendous amount of promise for a stronger and more equitable black coalition with the Democrats. More importantly, these are issues that could win favor even with the moderate wing of the Republican party, and allow black voters a chance to finally leverage their influence on both sides of the political spectrum. If these demands are not undertaken by 2008, there is a third, definitely less palatable option, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Black voters could send a very strong message to the Democrats and do what evangelicals did in 2000—stay home until their agenda is represented. Whichever path black voters take, Democrats should know that revolt is in the air on the plantation, and the slaves are finally tired of working for free.

Brandon M. Terry ‘05 is a government and African and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.