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Up for grabs: the Black vote.

In 1996, African Americans will have the chance to help choose the leaders of the 21st century. But will we show up at the polls?

"WHY SHOULD I VOTE? IT NEVER MAKES A DIFFERENCES." Those words are uttered all too often within the African American community. But a closer look at election returns from 1992 suggests why such statements are terribly flawed. Perhaps one of the most underreported stories that year was the critical role that African American voters played in Bill Clinton's presidential election victory.

Widespread voter discontent produced a near-record turnout at the polls. So-called Reagan Democrats once again defected from the Democratic party and split their votes between George Bush and third-party candidate Ross Perot. Independent voters also sided largely with Perot. However, an uncharacteristically heavy turnout of African American voters remained loyal to the Democrats and provided the margin of victory for Clinton in many key states. It could be argued that because they turned out in large numbers, African Americans were the swing vote in a presidential election for the first time in history.

Jesse Jackson's grass-roots voter registration drives during the 1992 campaign galvanized hundreds of thousands of African Americans to go to the polls. Yet, just two years later, they returned to familiar form, staying away from the polls in droves.

The traditionally low voter turnout during the midterm elections along with angry appeals for "less government" helped Republicans gain control of the Senate and House of Representatives. African American inactivity cannot be blamed for the entire 1994 Republican landslide. But had they gone to the polls with the same fervor they did in 1992, the outcomes in several congressional districts might have been different. By not participating, African Americans indirectly helped Republicans gain the platform to push programs that have the potential to cause great pain in minority communities.

Now the 1996 elections are on the horizon. With control of the Senate and House of Representatives in their grasp and a conservative Supreme Court on their side, all the Republicans need is the White House to have a virtual legislative grand slam. Desperately trying to avoid being shut out on Capitol Hill, Democrats are looking to maintain control of the White House and recapture Congress. When Americans go to the polls, black voters may very well cast the deciding vote. But that's only if they exercise their power at the ballot box.

Most pundits agree that there is a great deal at stake in 1996. "There are a lot of battleground states where the African American vote clearly makes the difference [for Clinton's reelection], like Illinois and Michigan," says Democratic National Committee Political Director Minyon Moore. African American votes can also make a difference in several congressional races--which will do a lot to determine whether the Republicans' conservative movement stalls or gains greater momentum.

With so much at stake, one might expect both parties to diligently court African American voters. But that's not exactly the case.

"That either party is vying for the black vote is a laughable assumption," says Ron Walters, chairman of the Howard University political science department. Walters reasons that the nation's political sway toward conservatism has created a silent collaboration between the two political parties on many legislative initiatives that threaten African Americans. Republicans introduce conservative solutions to issues such as welfare reform and affirmative action, and Democrats fail to defend existing policy or offer counter-proposals that are substantially fairer than Republican proposals. "If blacks turn out very strongly in 1996, it will be pretty much for the same reason that they turned out in 1992--because they want conservative Republicanism eliminated from the equation," says Watters.

Eliminating conservative Republicanism in 1996 is likely to be even more difficult than it was in 1992. Emboldened by their strength in Congress, newly elected Republicans like J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) are bursting with confidence. "I don't think we need to do anymore in the black community than we do in the white community or any other community," says Watts. "The black community wants economic growth, infrastructure--the same things that other communities want."

Eunice Thomas, the Republican national committee director of African American Outreach, agrees. "No one is going to be turning things upside down, creating a strategy trying to trick African Americans into the Republican party," she says. "We're simply going to be articulating our message to make sure African Americans understand the philosophy of the Republican party."

The Democratic party isn't specifically targeting the African American vote either. "That's not the job of the Democratic party," says Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. "One cannot expect that the party would put the interests of a single community at the top of the list if that community is not participating at its full strength," she explains. Braun reasons that African Americans must make voting a tradition in their communities if they expect their political concerns to be addressed. "Too many people see voting as doing a favor for the politician or party they're voting for. That's not the deal," says Braun. "You're voting to do yourself a favor--to look out for your own interests. Those who go to the polls get heard. Those who don't, won't."

Both parties agree that maintaining ties with the African American community is important. Thomas says that the Republican party will hold regional issues conferences where everyone is invited to debate the issues. They will also articulate Republican positions at these conferences.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Donald Payne (D-N.J.) says educating the community will be a primary concern. The CBC Foundation has planned a massive voter registration and education project to prepare for 1996. Discussion with organizations such as the National Baptist Convention of America, the Links and Delta Sigma Theta are also planned.

The black press will also be used in the CBC effort to inspire people to go to the polls, Payne says. "We see the power of communication that the religious right has used. We've got to figure out a way to offset that," he says.

But in the end, getting African Americans to the polls may depend largely on what happens between now and the election. "The Democrats hope they will be able to use the Republican's Contract With America--most of the positions of which are opposed by the black community--to scare black voters into coming out to vote," says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

As for the Republicans, what are they willing to do to bring blacks into the party and what are they doing to attract white support, Bositis asks. "If they're attracting white support by engaging in wedge-issue racial politics, then they'll basically get the 10% black support they've received in the past," he says. How the debate over welfare reform and affirmative action plays out will be key to African American voter support.

But no matter who ultimately wins the majority of their votes, Braun feels it will do little to change the African American condition unless there is a major change of perspective. "There must be a shift so that the perspective is not that we're going to be taken care of by one party or another, but that we're going to take care of ourselves and our own interests," she says. She used the recent creation of an African American political action committee by BLACK ENTERPRISE publisher Earl G. Graves and several other BE 100s CEOs as an example of the beginnings of such a shift of perspective in the black community.

"What they've done is great," says Braun. "They can talk about the facts of affirmative action and put a face on it that doesn't buy into the stereotypes and myths. That helps it become non-partisan, and then you can attract the support of both Democrats and Republicans."

And wouldn't that be something--both parties supporting African Americans for a change.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Black Enterprise 25th Anniversary: Saluting the Past, Shaping the Future; will the vote be utilized
Author:Scott, Matthew S.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Previous Article:Survival of the fittest.
Next Article:Must Black firms stay in Black hands?

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