Democrats Dilemma

2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination of 21 file photos (L-R top row): U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Michael Bennet. (L-R middle row): Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, U.S. Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (L-R bottom row): Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Gov. Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Mayor Wayne Messam, and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. REUTERS/Files

Blues legend Bobby Bland often played a tune called Keep it a Secret. It has to do with a married man and his outside lady. It seems that the Democratic Party is developing a similar relationship with Black people.

I’m not talking about “people of color.” I am referring to African Americans whose ancestors were U.S. slaves. Like a kept mistress, too often we don’t get summoned ’til the need arises. That is, if we get summoned at all.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s tragic 2016 campaign. She lost Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by less than 100,000 votes combined. Of course she did. She barely campaigned there, perhaps assuming Black folks don’t need to be asked. An investment of time and funding in Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia likely would have tipped all three states – and their pivotal electoral votes – in her favor.

Do not, however, expect things to be much different the next time around. It appears that the new crop of Democratic presidential candidates also have a “thing” about talking directly to Black folks about the things that matter.

Perhaps they have one eye on recent Appellate and Supreme Court decisions that frown on the classification of citizens by race. Or more likely, they’re worried about how promises made specifically to Black voters will play among White “swing” voters.

As Bobby “Blue” Bland put it: “I‘d like to tell the world how I feel about you, but right now we just can’t tell the truth.” So the candidates are afraid to identify any of their policy proposals as aimed at helping African Americans. Not when an aging White electorate might be alienated by what many derisively refer to as “identity” politics.

So several candidates are taking a more “generic” approach to urban policy. Emily Badger in the New York Times notes the tortured complexity of the language being used about Black people.

Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker

Elizabeth Warren, for instance, wants to offer down payment assistance to home buyers in formerly “red lined” neighborhoods where banks and brokers once denied access to mortgages. Then there’s Cory Booker, who would like to create “baby bonds” that would be worth more to children in poor families, helping them one day to buy houses or other assets.

These candidates know the courts wouldn’t uphold Black baby bonds or housing programs explicitly for African Americans, even though such programs might aim to remedy historic wrongs visited mainly and directly on Blacks. So eligibility for such programs must hinge on “household wealth,” even though African-Americans, though fully 13 percent of our nation’s population, hold but 2.8 percent of its wealth.

And it’s not just politicians talking around race. Universities and other research institutions appear to be skirting the mention of Black people and coming up with socio-demographic euphemisms such as “Misery Index.” The game is to distinguish between classes without specifying race or ethnicity.

The College Board that runs the SAT exam has gone to “race neutral” alternatives to affirmative action, according to New York Times education writers Anemona Hartcollis and Amy Harmon. School districts everywhere have been following suit.

Until a decade ago Chicago, with its long history of segregation, considered race when determining admission to the most competitive high schools. But in 2009, after a federal judge ended the school board’s desegregation consent decree with the Department of Justice, the admissions process was effectively de-raced.

Selective high schools in Chicago now admit 30 percent of their students based on grades and test scores, but use socio-economic factors for the rest. These consist of median family income, single-parent households, parents’ education level, percent of owner occupied homes, whether English is not the at-home language and achievement scores of neighborhood schools in the same census track. One can only imagine how all these factors might intermingle on an MS Excel spreadsheet!

No Help From The Media

In better times one could depend on tell-it-like-it-is journalism to speak frankly about historic injury to Blacks and ways society could provide recompense. But these are not better times for American journalism, especially the interpretive print journalism on which so many older voters rely.

Jill Abrahamson lays it out in her book Merchants of Truth: The Business of Journalism and the Fight for Facts. All across America newspaper quality isn’t surviving the deep staff cuts caused by vanishing advertising and circulation revenues. The newspaper industry shed $1.3 billion worth of editing and reporting jobs in the past decade. These positions have shriveled by 60 percent since 2000.

The kind of investigative stories that took months to report and still more time to edit are now a rarity. The trend is toward shorter, quick-hit Internet eye-candy that prompt maximum “clicks” or “likes” or “tweets” or “page views.” “Time of engagement” is also measured, but advertisers aren’t that interested in longer attention spans.

There is a deeper and more troubling phenom in this print medium downward spiral. That is the dependency the Black voter had in the newspaper as being factual, well investigated and “you could take it to the bank”. That level of trust has vanished.

Consider the Chicago newspapers. Nothing illustrates the sorry state of the print media mess than some of the things at the Chicago Tribune. Once a repository of accuracy, precision and fact, it appears to have lost its way. Since the departure of that Editor Supreme, Marcia Lythcott in 2018, one is truly saddened by some of the paper’s output.

A case in point is the story by one Chezare Warren titled, “Urban Prep put its reputation ahead of results.” Urban Prep (full disclosure, its founder Tim King is my son) is a charter school whose students are African-American high schoolers.

In 10 years it has had over 1,700 Black boys admitted to colleges, close to $100 million in scholarships, in excess of 10,000 college admissions, with 20 of its graduates returning to one of the school’s three campuses to teach.

During the Lythcott era at the Tribune, these feats were reported on and celebrated. What is most distressing about the Tribune and Warren is the fact that in 2017, he published a book titled URBAN Preparation, in which he states, “Teaching at the nation’s first all-boys public charter high school represented an opportunity to help build a school that would be(come) a national model for how to best educate young Black men and boys who attend urban schools…teaching at the school is still one of my proudest professional accomplishments.”

My disappointment with this is two-fold; the first is the author’s conflicting statements and the second is that the Tribune published it. The fairness, fact checking and editing for accuracy vanished. To counter the Warren comments, Urban Prep graduates had to go to the Chicago Reporter publication and say that “Mr. Warren betrayed our trust.”

Why this example is in a political analysis rests on the fact that if you can’t trust the newspaper for accuracy, you must depend more on face-to-face conversation and that need appears throughout this essay.

Meanwhile, non-partiality – think Walter Cronkite — has gone out of style and is fast being replaced by polarizing cable TV news shows and shock-jock radio commentators with political axes to grind. So while news has become ubiquitous in the digital age, it’s harder to get trustworthy information underwritten by a financial model that can support such an effort.

So what does all this mean for Black voter turnout in the 2020 primary and general elections? Will the seeming ban on racial frankness, coupled with the cacophony of shallow, hyper-partisan media, combine to keep Black voters on the couch and Donald Trump in the White House?

The Black Census Project

To the possible rescue comes Alicia Garza and the The Black Census Project with results of a private survey of 31,000 African Americans whose collected gripes and glories should be required reading for the candidates.

Garza started the Project in 2018 and has surveyed Blacks in all 50 states. Partnering with grassroots organizations and fielding 100 trained staff, their findings as reported in the New York Times are eye-opening:

– African-American voters feel candidates talk at, but not to, Black people;

– The most common response was that no politician or pollster has even asked what their lives were like and how they viewed their life chances;

– In California, left-leaning groups in 2016 raised $200 million. In the last election cycle they raised $30 million, but spent only $50,000 on Black engagement;

– Campaigns that fail to understand or try to remedy the ways that structural racism damages Black people’s lives are missing a bet. Without this analysis, their solutions will always miss the mark when it comes to Black votes.

Alicia Garza

But even when candidates follow Garza’s spot-on survey findings, both the language and the messenger must be believable, and ready to make face-to-face contact. That’s the lesson from last year and Stacey Abrams’ nearly successful run for the Georgia governorship, along with Doug Jones’ Alabama Senate victory.

Democrat Stacey Abrams ran against GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp after becoming the first Black woman to win a major party’s nomination for Governor in American history. The 1,923,685 votes she received exceeded Barack Obama’s 2012 Georgia total.

Georgia’s Stacey Abrams

In 2018, she captured more African-American votes than the total of all Georgia Democratic votes in 2014. She later told me that the scandal-plagued, Black-voter-suppressed election was rigged in that her opponent was “contestant, referee and scorekeeper”!

Democrat Doug Jones won over Roy Moore in Alabama’s 2016 Senate race due to a massive turnout by African Americans. He’s the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama in 25 years.

Alabama’s Doug Jones

In Georgia and in Alabama, it was the Black vote that made history. Sure they used phone banks, radio and social media. But these teched-up maneuvers were eclipsed by the effectiveness of swarming Black areas with organized get-out-the-vote canvassing and good ole door knockin’. So was arranging transportation to and from voting booths.

The ACLU, NAACP, Black churches, African-American fraternities and sororities, in addition to HBCUs, worked non-stop in the Alabama race. Early fundraising was key. In Alabama, the Senate Majority PAC raised in excess of $6 million, which helped fund the ground game. Other PACs donated over $4 million in order to get to rural and hard to reach areas.

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams’ campaign received $4 million from the Democratic Governors Association. In addition to getting corporate support, Abrams put individuals on “payment plans.”

Alicia Garza’s survey clearly states how Black voters feel about candidates, about candidates’ attitudes toward them. The Abrams and Jones races made clear that, in order to win, there needs to be a laser-like focus on the African-American voter. And not just media buys, but press-the-flesh personal outreach.

Using the lessons from Garza, Abrams and Jones, the Democratic Dilemma can become a Democratic Direction toward victory. Be not afraid to talk candidly about race, past wrongs, and future remedies. Listen, too. It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again…and expecting a different result.

(Paul King is a construction consultant and member of Chicago’s Business Leadership Council.)

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