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Election Focus 2004

African Americans and the 2004 U.S. Elections

In a recent interview, Dr. Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, spoke with Washington File staff writer Darlisa Crawford about the role of African Americans in the 2004 election. Dr. Walters is a recognized expert on African American involvement in electoral politics and a frequent political commentator on network television.

Q: What are the major issues for African Americans in the 2004 election?

Walters: The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which is a black think tank, has done surveys in the past several election cycles, and the same African Americans and the issues come up. The top one, right now, is employment — jobs — because black unemployment is double
white unemployment. It’s about 11 percent, whites are about 5.1 or 5.2 percent. So that’s a critical issue in the black community, because there’s so much unemployment. Then, of course, education is important. We’re now commemorating the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 50 years ago, when the Supreme Court decided to integrate American schools. And yet, we still live in a highly segregated environment with respect to education, where 80 percent of young black kids go to schools that are more than 50 percent black and 60 percent of whites go to schools that are more than 50 percent white.

So, education — especially higher education — is a big issue because that is the route to social mobility and professional status. Things like grants and government funding are a primary concern.

And then, of course, health care is very important, because of the gaps in many health-related diseases and conditions between blacks and whites, and also gaps in the treatment of those conditions and insurance coverage. Those are the top three.

The war in Iraq is in fourth place according to some recent studies and polling information, primarily because blacks have become such a high proportion of the casualties. Twenty percent of the casualties in Iraq are African American, so that’s an obvious concern, as well as the concern about the use of the financial resources going to the war.

Q: In 2002, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies asked black respondents in itsnational survey to identify themselves as either Democrats, Independents or Republicans. Although 63 percent claimed to be Democrats, the number was down from 74 percent in 2000. Is this trend continuing and is the Republican Party making special efforts to bring African Americans back to the party of Abraham Lincoln?

The Republican Party in each election cycle has claimed that they are making such efforts, but it’s very difficult to see them. African Americans will say, for example, that they have changed their party identification.

Right now, however, the growth in party identification is for neither major party, but with Independents. Yet, when you look at how people actually vote, African Americans voted 90 percent Democrat in the last election in each age group. So, although some of the past Joint Center studies show that younger blacks below the age of 35 were more conservative on some issues, still, when it came to political behavior, they voted pretty much like their elders.

Q: How have recent efforts to redraw legislative districts in states such as Texas impacted minority communities?

The question of redistricting in Texas is one that will eventually be decided by the courts because of the irregularities in redistricting. The issue here is whether or not this dilution of both the black and Hispanic vote runs afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many experts believe
that redistricting is legal, but in the minds of many lawyers, it is a clear violation, because it has diluted these votes. And so, that fight will go on, and it probably will not affect African Americans unless many of the states adopt mid-term redistricting. That’s one of the reasons why I think that
eventually the practice will be thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Q: How will the voter reform efforts since the 2000 election impact the African American constituency?

It should boost the vote, insofar as the Help America Vote Act has provided economic resources to states and localities for purchasing modern voting machines. Those machines should help to increase the African American turnout figures, because their votes were disproportionately thrown out during the last presidential election. Some of that has been traced to the fact that the older voting machines are placed in innercity areas. So, if the new machines are put in these areas, then it should certainly help to record the African American vote. Other important aspects of electoral reform include better training for poll workers, better management of voter lists, voters’ ability to check their voting status, voting right restoration of those with prior felony convictions and other things.

Q: Will African American youth be an important factor in this election, and are special voter registration drives aimed at youth?

There are many special voter registration drives aimed at youth. MTV, of course — which is the youth-oriented television network — generally has a number of programs aimed at young people. But, the big non-partisan organization called YouthVote is funded by a number of sources, and it is perhaps the main organization that targets youth voting. There is an organization called Black Youth Vote, which is part of the larger organization, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Black Youth Vote has been in existence for quite awhile, and it targets young people below the age of 35. Generally speaking, the black youth vote will be important, since that population constitutes about 40 percent of the total black population. There has been an effort to increase youth turnout because it runs in the mid-30 percent range, compared to over 50 percent for older African American adults.

Q: Why is Al Sharpton’s campaign significant and how long will he remain in the race?

Al Sharpton’s campaign is significant, first of all, because he represents African Americans who generally are absent at the higher levels of national politics. We’ve never had an African American president, we don't have blacks in the *Senate of the United States. There are 39 in the
House of Representatives, and only one on the Supreme Court. So, when you look at the higher levels of government, blacks are missing, and so to have Sharpton represented in the race is a plus for African Americans.

Secondly, to the extent that he is able to collect delegates, he will be able to represent African American interests at the convention, and with the potential nominee of the party. The larger his delegate group, then the more influence he will have. People compare Sharpton to Reverend Jesse Jackson, who first ran for the presidency in 1984, and who took 384 delegates to the convention that year. By 1988, when Jackson ran again, he took 1,200 delegates to the convention. So, he was obviously in a very, very strong position to exercise leverage. That is the hope of many people: that Sharpton will be able to replicate some aspect of Jesse Jackson’s feat in presidential politics.

Q: Are there any other comments that you want to add?

In the 2000 election cycle, African American registration had pulled pretty much even with whites. The difference between the two was only two percent. African Americans had also pulled even with whites in voting. The difference there was only 2.9 percent. That’s something that is very important, because it’s been a long road since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And in most of that time, the black vote and registration was significantly behind the white vote. In 2000, African Americans virtually caught up. In the 2004 election cycle, therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the black vote actually surpassed the white vote.

[*Editor’s Note: Carol Moseley Braun served in the U.S. Senate from Illinois from 1993-1999, and most recently also ran for president during the Democratic Party primaries and caucuses.]