In 2000, frustrated by politics in New Jersey, I extended an invitation to approximately 100 of my friends and colleagues to dinner at the World Trade Center to have an open discussion on the need to develop a new paradigm for Black political participation. The dinner took place on the top floor of one of the Twin Towers, in the Windows on the World restaurant, all of which would be destroyed a year later by the terrorist attacks on September 11. That night, though, my thoughts were on how Blacks were marginal to the politics of my state despite there being over one million African-Americans in New Jersey. While Blacks were mayors in some of the state’s largest cities, and held seats in the state legislature, poverty still gripped large swaths of the community, too many of our children were in low-performing public schools, and we had a miniscule presence on the economic radar. In one of the nation’s most affluent states, the political process was not serving our interests and I thought we were not asserting ourselves in a manner that best served the larger community.
Having aligned with the Democratic Party since my early childhood interest in politics, and voting and working as a registered Democrat as an adult, the partisan model of political participation was wearing thin on me. I recognized that the emotional pull of the Democratic Party was strong in the Black community and that the Republican Party had made major missteps – most noticeably embracing its far right wing – that made a competitive political landscape almost impossible to fathom. However, despite how Blacks aligned on a partisan basis, I felt strongly then and even more so now, that Blacks need a more independent and pragmatic engagement in politics and with government at all levels. It is why I called together friends and political acquaintances that I felt had the sensibility to at least “hear” my thesis, if not readily embrace it.
I look back to that dinner now because in many ways it has relevancy to our present political predicament. In many ways, Blacks are caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” in trying to find safe haven in the nation’s political conversation. The rhetoric of Democratic Party politics is mostly inviting and encouraging, but we always come away frustrated and feeling as though there is little reciprocity when the spoils of victory are distributed; and taking disproportionate blame when the party experiences defeat. On the other hand, the vitriol of the neo-conservative wing of the GOP has made it virtually impossible for Blacks to entertain the idea of engaging the Republican Party. The Tea Party movement has done little to help the party’s cause with Black voters. There have been periods when there are hints of change, even currently with a Black heading the national Republican Party and two Black Republicans in Congress. Still, the moments of collaboration have been fleeting with the party that once held Blacks’ allegiance and was the champion of Reconstruction.
Personally, my approach has been to exercise self-determination and engage with either party when I feel it best supports the long-term interest of my community. It has meant supporting Democrats on some issues, and working for them when it appears that it is the best option to achieve incremental progress on some fronts. Likewise, there have been instances when I have opted to support the Republican Party and work with the GOP when I perceive that there will be a better outcome for Blacks in my state. Admittedly, it is a somewhat schizophrenic approach to politics, and wins few friends with hard ties to the Democratic Party, but it represents to me the most logical approach in an environment where the interests of Blacks are often an afterthought by politicians of all stripes. It is not post-partisan, but independent and selectively partisan on a case by case basis.
At some point African Americans must construct a different political discourse that makes self-determination the most important consideration, and frees us of the labels that more often than not divides us. During a keynote speech I delivered at a political conference in Manchester, England some time ago, I pointed out that I was ‘black long before I was a Democrat.’ I would feel the same way if my political involvement had been primarily with the Republican Party. My interest is in the fulfillment of African-American destiny in our nation and from what I have seen that can only occur when Blacks free themselves from political bondage.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.