For some time now, Democrats have shied away from confronting racial disparities in our nation and often play into the hands of forces whose obvious motivation is to impair the rights of Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and increasingly Muslims. It seems as though the party declared its job done almost fifty years ago after the monumental Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Since then, the party has moved tepidly to continue the fight to level the economic and social playing field, and move its most disadvantaged, and often despised, constituents into full citizenship.
Following the debacle in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the southern strategy of Richard Nixon, it seems the party began to view minority voters as liabilities. Rather than define a new progressive agenda, Democrats were duped into moving to the political center, a strategy that was sold as the elixir of their ailment of capitulation to minorities. This shift eventually led to the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group that is now defunct for all intent and purpose, and the centrist presidency of Bill Clinton. While the 1990’s gave Democrats a momentary respite with one of their own in the White House, Republicans took a hard right turn. As a result of the GOP taking control of the House of Representatives during the Gingrich rebellion of 1994 Democrats moved even farther right to try to compete with the Republicans for increasingly conservative white voters. Rather than expand their base, Democrats seem intent on vying for the affection of voters who have no interest in a more inclusive America.
At the heart of this new strategy were Democrats’ fears that they were losing white voters. As the party worked to establish a new relationship with a drifting white electorate, repeated incidents revealed the Democrats reluctance to confront the new racial inertia in our country. Going back to the Bakke affirmative action decision, the forced resignation of Andrew Young as United Nations Ambassador during the Carter presidency, the Supreme Court confirmation battle over Clarence Thomas, and multiple train wrecks during the Clinton years, the party has backtracked when race has been at the center of policy debates and political decisions. Today, with Blacks floundering in the throes of a historic recession, Democrats, including President Obama, are loathe to suggest that race continues to drive inequities in our society.
Democrats seem to flinch when white voters call them on the carpet. What else could explain their paralysis we witnessed when the Tea Party movement was riling up across the country? Better yet, when some Republicans make asinine and patently racist remarks, Black Democratic lawmakers are left to fend for the race. Even the degree of racial animus directed toward the President has not moved most Democrats, or the White House, to call out elements of our nation intent on reversing any gains made by people of color. Blacks meanwhile have been trapped between a party that seems to marginally care about our welfare and one that seems to harbor deep-seated resentment over our progress; however marginal our advances have been.
The racial atmosphere is becoming more toxic, not less so. It has become fashionable to suggest that racism has taken on more subtlety and its variants are harder to detect. I disagree. I think we now cower when confronted with racism and the absence of political will and leadership is glaring among Democrats. Too many Democrats would rather cater to white fears rather than confront them, and educate disgruntled whites who mistakenly blame Blacks and other racial minorities for the nation’s ills. What is missing within the Democratic Party is a white politician with the courage of a Hubert Humphrey, who challenged southern Dixiecrats over civil rights, or a Lyndon Johnson, who stared down his southern colleagues to push civil rights legislation. As the nation moves closer to the day when whites will be in the minority, the welfare of Blacks and Latinos will figure more prominently in the nation’s long-term security. It is why the fight over voting rights, immigration, education and workers’ rights continue to matter. Conservatives see an opportunity to essentially “freeze” progress and the timidity of white Democrats is giving the right free reign to do so.
It is ironic that 150 years after a monumental war that ended with the rights of Blacks being compromised; we are once again witnessing our citizenship under assault and our so-called friends pulling a disappearing act.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.