The Associated Press reported over the weekend that black lawmakers are complaining that John Kerry “isn’t doing enough to energize black voters.” This is at least the third report in the last two months about complaints from black politicians regarding the conduct of the Kerry campaign.
If Senator Kerry’s failing to energize black voters, it’s not because of lack of effort. On the same day of the AP report, Kerry spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus and suggested that Republicans might try to suppress the black vote. And in several appearances before predominantly black audiences, such as his speeches this summer to the NAACP and the Urban League, Senator Kerry actually claimed that a million black votes were stolen in the 2000 presidential election. Even more astonishing was his speech at the end of last week to the National Baptist Convention USA, the country’s largest black church organization. There he charged that the Bush-administration policies were taking the country back to the days of “Jim Crow”: “The wrong choices of the Bush administration–reduced taxes for the few and reduced opportunities for the middle class and those struggling to join it–are taking us back to two Americas, separate and unequal.” He also invoked several biblical references to attack the president (a quick Lexis/Nexis scan reveals no howls from the expected quarters) contending, among other things, that, as opposed to the Good Samaritan who stopped to help the man in need, George W. Bush “walked right by. He’s seen people in need, but he’s crossed over to the other side.”
Racially charged rhetoric is, of course, not uncommon in political campaigns. During presidential-election cycles outlandish claims and rumors pervade both black media and casual discourse: A vote for a Republican means another black church will be burned; the Voting Rights Act is going to expire, depriving blacks of the right to vote; voting for Republicans is a vote for lynchings. These claims and rumors are usually floated by talk radio commentators, community activists, low-level campaign staffers, and the like. And while they may be effective in turning out voters, they necessarily inflame racial tensions and suspicions.
What’s different about this presidential-election cycle is that a presidential candidate is trafficking in this poison. Racial demagoguery is odious whatever the source, but when someone of Kerry’s stature engages in it, the impact is magnified several fold.
Most candidates tailor their messages to appeal to the concerns of the particular audience. Speaking to members of a union local, a politician will likely address the new overtime rules; speaking to doctors, he’ll probably cover malpractice insurance. Some call this pandering, others call it smart politics.
Much of Senator Kerry’s message to black audiences, however, is drawn from negative and sometimes ugly stereotypes about putatively “black” concerns. For example, while speaking before the Urban League in July, Kerry stressed the need for more Section 8 funding rather than stressing home-ownership, and stressed government programs more than entrepreneurship (because, you know, most blacks are either on welfare or otherwise dependent on the government). He’s done so without challenge. Imagine the justifiable outrage if Kerry had employed offensive stereotypes when courting voters from other ethnic groups. Even when not engaging stereotypes Kerry tends to appeal to the lowest common denominator–a bland Huey Long.
Senator Kerry’s attempts over the last several months to “energize” black voters by invoking the specter of Jim Crow and falsely claiming massive voter disenfranchisement apparently aren’t impressing black Democrat leaders. That could well mean he might make even more incendiary comments in the upcoming weeks. If he does, he must be called on it. Senator Kerry’s divisive statements are more likely to create the two Americas of which he and his running mate complain rather than promote a more unified America.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.