Can Democrats inherit the votes that they need simply because they are not Republicans? You might think so to listen to the candidates on the stump. African American and urban votes are critical to any Democratic victory. Bill Clinton won two terms without winning the most White votes. His margin was the overwhelming support of Black voters. George Bush learned that lesson, that's why his campaigns spent so much effort suppressing the Black vote in key states like Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. His victory margin was the count of votes suppressed or uncounted.
Yet, the Democratic candidates – with the exception of John Edwards who opened his campaign in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and has made addressing poverty central to his campaign – have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country. The catastrophic crisis of the African American community goes without mention. No urban agenda is given priority. When thousands of African Americans marched in protest in Jena, not one candidate showed up.
Democratic candidates are talking about health care and about raising the minimum wage, but they aren't talking to the stark realities facing African Americans. And they aren't talking about economic justice or racial equality.
Consider. When the Constitution was written, it counted Blacks as 3/5 human, so that slaves who could not vote could add to the weight of the slave-owning states. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in ending segregation and providing Blacks with the right to vote. But the end of apartheid did not end the era of discrimination. And the ending of institutionalized violence did not end institutionalized racism.
Blacks now in another curious formula count about one-half of Whites. We have, on average, about half of what the good things as Whites do, and a double measure of the bad things.
Brutal patterns of discrimination are crushing too many. Young African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be searched if stopped, more likely to be arrested if searched, more likely to be charged if arrested, more likely to be sentenced to prison if tried, less likely to get early parole if imprisoned. Every study confirms the discrimination is systemic and ruinous. And yet, no candidate speaks to this central reality.
African Americans are more likely to go to overcrowded and underfunded schools, more likely to go without health care, more likely to drop out, less likely to find employment. Those who do work have less access to banks, less access to low cost food chains. They are more likely to be ripped off by payday lenders, more likely to be stuck with high-interest car and business loans, and far more likely to be steered to risky mortgages – even when adjusting for income. And yet, no candidate speaks to this central reality.
Personal responsibility is critical. But no one should ignore the effect of a discriminatory criminal justice system in generating broken families and broken dreams.
My son and I have authored a book and the Rainbow sponsors courses on financial responsibility, on saving, staying out of debt, stiff-arming the payday barracudas. Republicans built their southern strategy on race-bait politics and alienated African American voters, just as their immigrant bashing is now alienating Latino voters. But Democrats should not assume they can simply inherit these votes.
Dr. King saw the movement to end segregation and gain voting rights as the first stage of the Civil Rights Movement. The second stage – to gain economic justice and equal opportunity in fact – he knew would be much more difficult. Now, forty years later, it is no longer acceptable for leaders to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the entrenched patterns of discrimination that remain.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.