by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
presidential candidate Al Sharpton loves to take cheap shots at Howard Dean on race, calling Dean anti-black and an opponent of affirmative action. But beyond Sharpton's grandstanding lie important questions about Dean's claim to be the strongest Democratic candidate on civil rights.
To defend Dean from Sharpton's latest gripe -- that Dean had no blacks in his governor's cabinet -- one could say Dean was likely hard-pressed to find qualified blacks for such positions in Vermont, a state with a black population of less than 2 percent. But that's precisely the problem: In one of the whitest states in the nation, Dean simply didn't need the miniscule black vote. In one of the nation's least urbanized states, he never had to learn about or deal with the difficult, gritty inner-city issues that affect so many African Americans.
Dean faces other challenges if he wants to woo the black vote. He signed the bill making Vermont the first state to allow gay civil unions. And he takes a soft stand on gun control. Neither position will win him many friends among blacks. In a recent Pew poll, blacks were far more likely to oppose gay marriage than whites. And with the high level of gun carnage and mayhem tearing at black communities, black leaders shout the loudest for tougher gun laws to stem the violence.
Then there's cyberspace. Dean has aggressively used the Internet to whip up the passions and activism of disaffected and hostile Bush opponents, to hammer Bush on Iraq and failed domestic policies and to raise gobs of campaign dollars. This has rocket-launched him from the back of the Democratic pack and radically changed the way politicians do political outreach. The problem is that while cyber-connected whites and the top Democrats have gotten Dean's Internet message, blacks and minorities haven't. A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last summer showed that the digital divide between whites and blacks is still as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Dean unequivocally backs affirmative action, DNA testing for prisoners and expanded prisoner rights. He vigorously opposes racial profiling, and vows to appoint judges and an attorney general who will enforce and uphold civil rights laws and strengthen civil liberties protections. His stance on these issues could stir the political passions of many blacks in a positive way. But he has just begun to sound them out, at meet-up sessions in African American communities, at black churches, forums and community events.
In attacking Dean, Sharpton was almost certainly looking toward the Jan. 13 non-binding primary in Washington, D.C. (Dean was that primary's most prominent white Democrat), as well as the more crucial make-or-break Democratic primaries in February in South Carolina -- where black voters could make up as much as one-third of the vote -- and in March in Michigan, where the black vote is also important. Sharpton figures that by hammering Dean on race he can score big with black voters, and, if he plays the race card right, even emerge as the top dog in South Carolina among the Democrats. This would compel the white Democrat who finally emerges from the pack to genuflect at Sharpton's feet in order to get crucial black votes for the final showdown with President Bush in November.
Sharpton wants to break up the chummy good ol' white guys presidential club and goad the Democrats to take strong positions on civil rights and poverty issues. That's a good aim, but bashing Dean smacks more of racial opportunism than idealism. Meanwhile, in the critical Democratic primary season, Dean has a chance to show greater consistency, competency and familiarity with black issues.
January 13, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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