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June 1990

Interracial Coalitions

"New moderation" doesn't account for the dramatic gains that black politicians made in the last elections

by Paul Ruffins

THE voters of Virginia made history last November when they elected a grandson of slaves, L. Douglas Wilder, to be their governor. In New York City voters elected a black man, David Dinkins, to be their mayor. Black mayors were also elected in Seattle and New Haven--venues, like Virginia and New York City, where blacks make up 26 percent or less of the population. The significance of these victories has been obscured by political commentators, whose instant analyses have congealed into two opposite versions of the conventional wisdom concerning "moderation." Some black analysts have attacked these new officials for being too moderate. Thus Susan Anderson, writing in The Nation, blasted the new generation of black politicians for caving in to the expediency of building political coalitions rather than being advocates for the economically disenfranchised black masses. Similarly, in a nationally syndicated column headlined "BEWARE OF 'CROSSOVER' POLITICS," Tony Brown warned that the election of blacks by whites will only result in black politicians' turning their backs on black interests in order to appease their new white constituents.

The very moderation decried by these black writers was hailed by conservatives and the establishment press generally. The Wall Street Journal's headline "NEW GENERATION: BLACK MODERATES WIN AT POLLS BY TARGETING ONCE-ELUSIVE WHITES," was echoed in media commentaries across the country. In these stories "moderation" was most often defined in Wilder's words, as not making "special appeals to special groups." A truer definition would have been not making "special appeals to black people." Wilder's victory in Virginia clearly rested on his appeal to pro-choice voters, and in New York, Dinkins explicitly sought the Jewish vote.

For conservatives, positing a "new generation" of black politicians preserves the Reagan-era contention that the problems facing minorities are largely of their own making. According to the theory as it has emerged on the pages of The Wall Street Journal, whites would not vote for "old-generation" black politicians, not because many whites harbored racist sentiments but because black politicians had not evolved to the point at which they would be worthy of white support. The new-generation theory moreover, allows for the dismissal of the old generation, primarily the always inconvenient Jesse Jackson, as obsolete.

Though the moderation displayed by Wilder and Dinkins is real enough, it is by no means new by the standards of most current black mayors or members of the House of Representatives, who are predominantly mainstream liberal Democrats. In the first half of the 10lst Congress there were five black congressmen who could be considered to belong to a new generation, because they were under fifty and were elected during the Reagan era. None could be labeled "angry" or "radical." In fact, of the over-fifty generation of black congressmen only two, William Clay, of St. Louis, and Gus Savage, of Chicago, could be considered angry, and only two, George Crockett, of Detroit, and Ron Dellums, of Berkeley (a Democrat who considers himself a Socialist), could be called radical.

The point is that there is no new, more moderate generation of black politicians. Most have been moderate all along. There have been angry civil rights leaders and black activists, but the angry black politician is a stereotype of conservatives. "What I think happens," Congressman Ed Towns, of Brooklyn, recently told me, "is that people confuse black politicians with black civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael, most of whom never ran for anything."

To be sure, the newer and older generations of black congressmen do differ. Many older members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for instance, are strongly pro-labor, even anti-corporation. In contrast, with the exception of Congressman John Lewis, of Atlanta, primarily known as a civil-rights activist, the "new-generation" black members--men like Alan Wheat, thirty-eight, of Kansas City; Floyd Flake, forty-five, of Queens; Kweisi Mfume, forty-one, of Baltimore; and Mike Espy, thirty-six, of the Second Congressional District of Mississippi--are known mainly for their interest in regional economic issues and small-business development. To take one example, Flake, who is a minister, won office by playing up his credentials as a catalyst for economic development; under his leadership his church built a 300-unit housing complex and revitalized dozens of small businesses. Flake maintains, against critics like Susan Anderson, that what in fact distinguishes his generation of black congressmen from their predecessors is their focus on business and the economic empowerment of the black community.

"We have a much broader sense of black participation in the wider economy," Flake told me recently. "We see business as generating the necessary resources for social change, versus the idea that social change creates the avenues for business." This is not to suggest, however, that the black House members care only about black issues. According to both the League of Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation, the Congressional Black Caucus has had a better environmental voting profile than any other group in Congress. It also has made a strong showing on women's issues.

WILDER and Dinkins, then, did not win because they belong to a new generation of moderate black politicians but because they benefited from a new set of circumstances that allowed them to capture record numbers not only of black votes but of white votes too. By becoming the official Democratic Party nominees, they acquired unprecedented (for black politicians) amounts of money, TV time, and organizational support. Black candidates are usually relatively poorly funded, but recently they have raised nearly as much money as their opponents. During the primary-election campaign Dinkins raised $2.9 million, nearly as much as the powerful incumbent mayor, Edward Koch. Wilder spent approximately $6 million, almost as much as his opponent. In addition, the Democratic National Committee provided the Democratic ticket in Virginia with $200,000, a phone bank, and volunteers to get out the vote. Wilder and Dinkins were also able to build on Jesse Jackson's efforts to register thousands of black voters and to compile lists of donors and committed supporters.

Support from the party was important in another way too. Even though many Democratic voters defected to the Republican opponents of Wilder and Dinkins, both black Democrats had their party's undivided backing, while their opponents faced intra-party battles. As Virginia's lieutenant governor, Wilder was such a clear choice to run for governor that his party nominated him unanimously at a state convention. Marshall Coleman, his Republican opponent, had to wage an expensive and debilitating primary campaign against the former senator Paul Trible and Representative Stan Parris. Neither Trible nor Parris played any significant role in Coleman's general-election campaign, while both Senator Charles Robb and Governor Gerald Baliles, despite having clashed with Wilder in the past, backed him to the hilt.

Dinkins had similar advantages. Once he won the primary, he received the strong support of leading Democrats, including Mayor Koch, Governor Mario Cuomo, and Senator Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts. Again, his opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, was not so lucky. Giuliani's rancorous feud with New York's most popular Republican, Senator Alfonse D'Amato, cost him dearly at the polls: the $8 million worth of negative television advertising bought by his Republican-primary challenger, Ronald S. Lauder, who was widely thought to have entered the race at the prompting of D'Amato, left him a seriously weakened candidate in the general-election campaign.

But the key to the Wilder and Dinkins victories was not money and strong party support, let alone moderation. It was a factor that may say something hopeful not just about black politicians, the Democratic Party, or even American politics but about American society: in Virginia and New York other issues (party loyalty and the right to choose an abortion) were ultimately more important than the racial issue. The Democratic Party in Virginia and New York was able to stand behind its black candidates because its white voters allowed it to do so. Even though many white Democrats did desert their party's candidates for governor and mayor in the end, making both elections much closer than the polls had predicted, they did not reject the party for running black candidates: in both Virginia and New York other (white) Democrats on the ticket did very well. The willingness of white voters to support tickets headed by blacks and to give the blacks themselves record levels of support--Dinkins got 30 percent of the white vote, Wilder got about 42 percent--was what was really new about the Wilder and Dinkins victories. In comparison, a year earlier Jesse Jackson wasn't able to win more than 15 percent of the white vote in Virginia or New York.

While discrepancies between exit polls and the election returns cast some doubt on the poll data, it seems clear that much of Dinkins's and Wilder's backing among whites came from younger voters. According to a survey by The New York Times and WCBS-TV News, white voters thirty to forty-four were much more likely to vote for Dinkins than were white voters over sixty. The age differential was also significant in Virginia. This generation gap among white voters is emerging at a critical time. Black politics has expanded to the limit of what black voters can accomplish by themselves. Data provided by the Joint Center for Political Studies shows that with the exception of New Orleans, all the nation's majority-black congressional districts already have a black member of Congress. In addition, with the exception of Richmond, Virginia, all majority-black cities of more than 200,000 already have black mayors. This means that for black politicians to make gains, they will have to face the new challenge of running against other black candidates in primary-election campaigns in which white voters are apt to be the swing vote. (A good example of this was the bitter 1986 congressional race in Georgia between two civil-rights heroes, Julian Bond and John Lewis.) It also means that black politicians will have the chance to use bridge issues, like the environment and women's rights, to connect with a larger electorate. "I think there was a feeling on the part of many black elected officials," Lewis told me, "that they could have been a congressperson or a mayor only in a district or city that is majority-black. But the elections of Dinkins and Wilder changed that altogether. Doug Wilder's success sent a strong message to black and Hispanic men and women that you can move up, that you can have a base that is larger than your ethnic group."

Wilder's victory showed that a black candidate can attract enough white support to win in an area with a proportion of black voters as low as 17 percent. If 17 percent is the minimum proportion of black voters needed for a black candidate to build a winning coalition, more than eighty congressional districts could send a black member to Congress, and eight states could elect a black governor or black senators. That possibility is the promise for the future of the victories of Douglas Wilder and David Dinkins. Their present meaning was best summed up by Ed Towns when he said, "There isn't a new generation of black politicians--there is a new generation of white voters."

Copyright 1990 by Paul Ruffins. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1990 ; Interracial Coalitions; Volume 265, No. 6; pages 28-34.

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