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Civil Rights, Then and Now, Part Two

THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG
#1408 Civil Rights, Then and Now, Part 2.
FEED DATE: April 06, 2006
Ronald Walters


Opening Billboard: Funding for this program is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Americaís Civil Rights Movement was the work of many people, but one name stands out: the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. His bold and courageous action opened the eyes of the nation to racial injustice. Coupled with President Lyndon B. Johnsonís passionate politicking, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became the law of the land. It added millions of blacks to voter rolls but Dr. King was a controversial man. Did his assassination mark the end of the Civil Rights Movement, or the start of a new era? What is the future of the black vote and will it be decisive in the 2006 and particularly the 2008 elections? To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, and author of 'Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics.' The Topic before the House: Civil Rights, Then and Now, Part Two, This week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Ron Walters. Welcome back to Part Two...

WALTERS: Thank you.

WATTENBERG: ...of our discussion of your book, ďFreedom Is Not Enough Freedom Is Not EnoughĒ. And if I put my glasses on, Iíll give the subtitle: ďBlack Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential PoliticsĒ. Now, my question is, if freedom -- and you know there had been -- not to the same extent, obviously, but there had been discrimination and prejudice against Jews and Irish and Italians and American Indians, to be sure. If freedom is enough for me, why is it not sufficient 40 years after the Voting Rights Act for African Americans?

WALTERS: Well, Ben, we havenít...

WATTENBERG: And thatís really the root of your ideology?

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: Unless Iím wrong, I mean, yes, right. Okay.

WALTERS: It is, yes. Well we havenít lived the same history. You line us up as though we were equal, but we havenít been and thatís the problem. And I think that in order to get at the heart of why, one has to admit at the end of the day that Blacks had to come -- that speech that Lyndon Johnson talked about -- loosening shackles and saying that you are free -- he says that unrealistic, because these people have come such a long, long way. So we canít both legitimize what he said and the meaning of what he said, and at the same time, act as though Blacks and Whites and Jews have all had the same history.

WATTENBERG: No, they have not. That is absolutely correct.

WALTERS: Okay so thatís why the meaning of freedom is different. If you are someone who has enjoyed the privileges of this country and is someone who is still, predominantly, seeking to enjoy them and trying to use the same instruments and the same political institutions, the same civil behavior in order to do it -- to achieve what you need to do to be full citizens. So thatís just sort of what I meant. That version of freedom where weíre simply talking about the Voting Rights Act and the ability to vote. I say in the book that you have to go back to Frederick Douglas, who, after slavery, advocated voting for Blacks. And what he had in mind was that voting would bring about true empowerment in citizenship. And King said the same thing. He says you know, he goes through this long speech in 1957 at the Lincoln Memorial, about give us the ballot...

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: ...and give us -- and this is what we can do and that is what is what we can do and so forth. My question in writing the book is had we achieved all of that empowerment, and my conclusion obviously is no.
So what Iím suggesting is what else we have to do, using the success, the minimal success of the Voting Rights Act, in order to achieve it because a lot of this is not just in the realm of voting; it is in the realm of politics.

WATTENBERG: You take the issue which has antagonized White Americans, which is crime. Now, the violent crime rates -- Black versus White -- in America, proportionately, rates are about five to one, have been something like that. The female, headed household rate, is -- I donít know, also five to -- very different.
In the 1920s, before all this, that wasnít true. There was sort of a rough -- now admittedly there was a vast poverty gap, but something --- and you hear it today when Bill Cosby speaks. And you heard it from Jesse Jackson, that weíre doing something bad to ourselves. You buy that?

WALTERS: Well, I donít think that you can blame the victim.

WATTENBERG: Iím not looking to blame the victim, Iím...

WALTERS: Well, thatís why I depart from Cosby and those people who would blame the victim, because most people donít understand, Ben, that when the civil rights movement started, that half of Black people were in official poverty; that 80 percent of Black people didnít even make the average income. That was the depth of that poverty situation.
So again, you canít simply just say that, well, okay, a few years later, because these statistics that you tried out happened to be on the books and know that you can wipe that away. You canít wipe that away because what we know around the world, not just in this country, is that poverty is the root of a whole lot of illicit behavior. We know that poverty is the root of things like female headed house. We know that because it happens and not just in this country. So if we know that as social scientists, and researchers and people who have been around the world and seen it, then why is it that in this country, we give it some special connotation when it applies to Blacks? We donít do that in Appalachia.

WATTENBERG: Alright. Just hold on one second.

WATTENBERG: You seem to indicate that there are sort of three scenarios that work. One is -- and you hear it again and again, in the African American community -- that Blacks are, quotes, ďtaken for granted by the Democratic PartyĒ. The second one is Blacks, African Americans in America, ought to pursue either an independent party or go their independent way as a political, cultural movement, separate and distinct from the Democratic Party, going one way or the other way. Thatís the second view you allude to.
And the third one, which you donít allude to, is -- which Iím mentioning -- is might it not be true that if a few more Blacks switched over to the Republican, instead of going 90-10 Democratic, they went 80-20 Democratic, you would have dominos falling all over America because when Democrats win, they win by -- by the Black vote. So what do you think -- I mean these are the tactical things that I came away from you book with and where do you come out on it?

WALTERS: Well I donít think -- just to take up your last one, first..

WATTENBERG: Yeah, please.

WALTERS: ...that Blacks are going to gain very much by giving 10 percentage more points to the Republican Party, essentially because the Republican Party right now is configured on the basis of a very strong conservative ideology. To think that they would change that ideology on the basis of 10 percent more Black votes, I think, is asking too much. So I think that I would go back to talk about the more independent strategy for Blacks, between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Itís not just I think that Black -- that the Democratic Party is taking Blacks for granted -- thatís a -- itís a little simplistic. Itís more complex than that because to the extent that the American electorate has shifted to the right, the Democratic Party has been thrown in disarray. Part of it has also moved to the right; part of it has stayed where it is.

WATTENBERG: Blacks switched -- I mean the so-called party of Lincoln -- until the 1930s and the terrible economic devastation...

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: ...blacks were mostly a Republican constituency.

WALTERS: Thatís right. I think most people donít really understand the tremendous transformation that the two parties went through historically. Because in the nineteenth century the Democratic Party was the Party of segregation and slavery, and the Republican Party was the Party of freedom.

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: These changed, of course, in the twentieth century, as you know, and the Democratic Party became more conservative in the South but it became a national party. And when it became a national party in 1948, it was Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention, who said, ďWe have got to take on this issue of racial discrimination...Ē

WATTENBERG: ďCome out of the shadow of stateís rights and into the bright sunlight of civil rightsĒ, something like that, right?

WALTERS: ďAnd also, write it in the platform of the Democratic Party. That changed a lot. The question for Blacks is whether or not the Democratic Party is still that dependable ally that itís had for the last 50 years and thereís some question about that, now. So what Iím arguing is that we need a center of gravity because the book really is based upon leverage. Leverage politics is really what any small cohesive cultural group does. I say small. I really shouldnít think of it as that small, because Blacks -- 40 million people -- thatís the size of a pretty big nation.

WATTENBERG: It sure is.

WALTERS: So we need to have...

WATTENBERG: And electorally, although not numerically it is much larger than the Latino community because they donít vote in anywhere near the percentages that Blacks. Itís...

WALTERS: It is. Twice as big as the Hispanic community right now.

WATTENBERG: Okay.

WALTERS: And so given that, we are in a position, really, to exercise considerable leverage if we had our own political apparatus. That really is the lesson of the Jackson campaign because Jackson was able to that inside the Democratic Party.

WATTENBERG: Look, you have this 90-10 split and when some of the leaders within the African American community -- Iím thinking specifically of Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume and others issue these incendiary remarks about Republicans -- and Iím using -- I mean, they call them fascists and they call them all kinds of things and weíve talked about how important the vote is. Is it any wonder that the Republicans say, ďWell, screw them, you know, who needs itĒ? But if they were giving them 20 percent and they were responsible for them being elected, wouldnít they then themselves say, ďhey, you know, we better be nice to these people, and letís keep that 20 percent and make it grow to 25 percentĒ?

WALTERS: Thatís a risk. What I would rather see first is some change in the ideology and the public policy profile of the Republican Party. American politics works that way. If you want a group, what you do is you change your ideology and your public policy to attract them. You donít expect them to change first and then have an impact on you, that you may not give them. So what Iím arguing is that if we have a leverage strategy, where we organize ourselves, it may not be a political party.

WATTENBERG: Oh, I see.

WALTERS: And it may not be a Black Party, because a lot of Whites want to join an independent formation.

WATTENBERG: Youíre talking about radical...

WALTERS: No, it doesnít have to be a radical.

WATTENBERG: A quite liberal third force.

WALTERS: Or it could be a progressive third force.

WATTENBERG: Right, right. Whatever name you want it.

WALTERS: Well, whatever it is, it seems to me it would have far more direction and credibility than the Democratic Party has now, which is all over the map in terms of its leadership.

WATTENBERG: But how would that independent force vote in a general election?

WALTERS: The beauty of leverage politics is that it could vote either way it wanted to, depending upon which Party gave it the best deal. So it wouldnít necessarily negate voting for Republicans.

WATTENBERG: Uh huh. It would put them in a period of -- it would put them in a position of greater leverage.

WALTERS: Thatís right because -- but the difference is that through leverage, the Republican Party would be forced to put its cards on the table, first...

WATTENBERG: Yeah.

WALTERS: ...in exchange for that vote.

WATTENBERG: You know itís a very interesting thing, I think -- and Iíd love to hear your comments on it -- that Reverend Jackson did not run -- I mean, he ran well in í84 and then he ran sensationally well in í88, he came into Atlanta like a conquering hero, and then he decides not to run in 1992. My own thought -- and itís just my own thought -- is because he believes in his heart of hearts, that a Black man canít be elected President.
Now, I donít know if thatís true or not, but, since -- I think he was wrong and is wrong. You look at the public opinion polls today and subsequent to that, you see Colin Powell, who is leading in the polls, in the Republican surveys. Condoleezza Rice is leading in the Republican primaries. You have people like Oprah Winfrey, who is -- sheís more than just an entertainer; I mean sheís got -- and there are others that, for the right kind of an African American candidate, this country is more than willing.

WALTERS: Well, I decided, in 1984, that a Black person -- and you made a very important remark when you said, ďthe right kind of Black person.Ē I decided in 1984 that a Black person who stood in the legacy and in the tradition of the Black community could not be elected President of the United States.
Itís interesting to me because youíve got Condoleezza Rice and youíve got Colin Powell, neither of whom fit that description, and both of whom, I think, are loved in part because, they again, they are in sync with the rightward shift of the White community, predominately. So -- and weíve had that before. I mean, the Black Republicans who have been elected to Congress have represented White districts.

WATTENBERG: You know Richard Scammon and I co-authored a book in 1970 called ďThe Real MajorityĒ, which sort of lays out my particular and his -- more his -- but at any rate...and we got a call a couple of years later from Whitney Young who was then the President of the Urban League, right? And he asked us could we visit him in his suite in the Mayflower Hotel. And we said, sure, Whitney Young. And we started chatting and he says, ďTell me something. Do you think a Black man could be voted -- could be selected and elected Vice President to the United States?Ē So weíre so smart and we say, ďOh, well the Democrats already have the Black voteĒ and this and you know ďbut itís a nice thoughtĒ and he says to me, I remember it -- he says, ďDid I say Democratic?Ē And he had an idea that if he could move 10 percent of the Black vote to the Republican side, he would really be the Kingmaker.

WALTERS: Thatís right. Thatís certainly true and for some time...

WATTENBERG: Yeah, interesting story.

WALTERS: It is an interesting story. I didnít know it, and for some time itís been the strategy of the Republican Party, to sort of lop off 20 percent of the Black vote. It hasnít been possible because of what weíre talking about here with respect to ideology and issues -- they simply hasnít been in sync.

WATTENBERG: Do you believe that in recent years there has been a purposeful effort to roll back Black voter rights in America?

WALTERS: I do. As a matter of fact, itís to roll back Black civil rights in general, of which voter rights are a part.

WATTENBERG: Well, letís stick to voting rights because the other one, we could go on forever. I mean not that Ė well...

WALTERS: Okay. Alright. Okay.

WATTENBERG: Well, one of the things you mentioned is -- well, they have to show an ID card to vote.

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: But everybody has to show an ID card to vote, in one way or another.

WALTERS: That doesnít put me off. Itís the requirements that states are passing -- like Georgia for example recently passed an ID requirement which said that Blacks -- well, everybody, has to show five forms of state approved ID. In order to back that up -- in order to get a state issued ID, means you have to have things like birth certificates and basic documents, a lot of which Blacks donít have.

WATTENBERG: How do Whites do it?

WALTERS: Because they have had these documents far longer than Blacks. Youíve got Blacks in Georgia -- come out of slavery -- hadnít had any documentation and so a lot of people donít have those kinds of documents. Before, in Georgia, you could have 17 forms of identification...

WATTENBERG: Well, that was in the year of the poll tax, which was clearly -- I mean...

WALTERS: No, I mean just a few years ago.

WATTENBERG: Really?

WALTERS: They allowed 17 forms of identification. But they changed it just...

WATTENBERG: But you only had to show one or two, or you had to show all 17?

WALTERS: In 2005 they changed it -- 2005, and it was pre-cleared...

WATTENBERG: I didnít know that.

WALTERS: ...by the Justice Department. Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: Now, one of the other things you cite is that certain states, Florida among them, in 2000 would not allow convicted felons to vote. Now -- and you regard that as an anti-Black activity...

WALTERS: No.

WATTENBERG: No? Youíre not...

WALTERS: Because White felons canít vote either. Itís an anti-civil rights issue because if a person, I think, pays their debt to society, that have been duly convicted of a felony and they do their time, it seems to me itís -- itís a double punishment.

WATTENBERG: So, youíre arguing on straight substance of ground?

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: That itís just a bad law?

WALTERS: Itís a bad law.

WATTENBERG: Because you see, I remember hearing John Ehrlichman talk once after Watergate and he lived in Arizona and he couldnít vote.

WALTERS: Uh huh.

WATTENBERG: And he was so bitter.

WALTERS: Sure. He should have been.

WATTENBERG: Yeah. I mean for just the reasons youíre saying.

WALTERS: It just happens that it disproportionately impacts Blacks because in a state like Florida, youíve got 400,000 people in that situation; 100,000 of them -- 200,000 of them Blacks. They could have easily carried the difference in that election. Nationally, youíve got 2 million people in that situation. Itís just a crime that you have people who are paying a double punishment, simply by having gone to jail and paid their time.

WATTENBERG: Has the Congressional redistricting -- I mean, youíve gone from one or two Black Congressmen to, what is it -- in the Black Caucus, now?

WALTERS: Itís 43.

WATTENBERG: 43? Because of the Voting Rights Act...

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: Has the Congressional -- I wonder, can you explain to us, what various players were trying to do with that redistricting and why? I mean there are some very interesting arguments there.

WALTERS: Well, yes, and you and I talked about this through the years. The Democratic Party, of course, has wanted to take the Black vote, split it up, into a number of districts because in those districts, it would have a liberalizing effect on whoever was elected. The problem with that...

WATTENBERG: In other words, they would create what theyíd called majority-minority districts, or almost -- enough so that if you had 40 percent Black...

WALTERS: ...30 or 40 percent, yeah.

WATTENBERG: ...then youíd have enough Whites to take you over the top.

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: That was a Democratic idea?

WALTERS: Thatís right. And the person elected, of course, would be more liberal than if you didnít have Blacks. The Republicans have ironically sided with organizations like the NAACP in creating minority-majority districts. The problem, of course, with the Republican strategy is that they wanted to pack too many Blacks into these districts. They were necessary.

WATTENBERG: Get them all out of the White districts.

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: Because the White districts would then be Republican. So weíre sort of again, caught between...

WATTENBERG: Weíre back to this chicken and egg argument. Suppose you had more districts where Blacks were -Ė look, theyíre 10 percent of the population Ė whatever, 12 percent of the electorate?

WALTERS: Yeah.

WATTENBERG: Suppose they were 25 percent of the electorate and a Republican won. But he won because he got some Black votes. Doesnít he then owe them something?

WALTERS: He does, but my -- Iíve done a study of this and looked at the problem of course in the South, and you have a number of Southern districts down there with a 25 percent Black population where the White representative doesnít pay any attention to the issues of the Black community.
Itís a little bit better in the north. If you had a district in the North where you had 25 percent Black, itís likely that the representative would nominally be White -- would pay more attention to the issues of the Black population than in the south.
In the south, it turns out that you need to begin in about 40 percent of Blacks in a district, in order for the person thatís elected to pay you any attention. Or for you to have any significant voting power to elect a representative.

WATTENBERG: Jesse Jacksonís been quoted as saying, ďNothing important has changed since the civil rights era.Ē Do you believe that?

WALTERS: No. And Iím -- Iíd be surprised if he said it. Because he has lectured me, on times, looking at where he grew up and in Greenwood and saying, ďLook, I know that things have changed substantially and we shouldnít downplay the successes that weíve had, because it gives people hope that change will come.Ē

WATTENBERG: Last question. Tell me about the future of the Black leadership. Who do you like? Who do you think captures what youíre talking about, if not what Iím talking about?

WALTERS: Well, I donít think at the moment any of the existing Black leadership group has captured what Iím talking about. The interesting thing to me is that my ideas about independent Black politics are more in sync with a younger group of Black professionals who are coming on, who are looking at the Democratic Party and who donít see much of a reason to join it. Weíre looking at the Republican Party and saying, ďNo, they donít represent my issuesĒ.

WATTENBERG: I mean someone like Harold Ford of Tennessee?

WALTERS: Well, Harold Ford, of course, is a little different.
WATTENBERG: Heís sort of a moderate.

WALTERS: Yeah. But heís a little different because Harold Ford is a politician and heís running for a statewide office in the state of Tennessee -- southern state. So his -- I understand his politics have to be moderate or to the right.

WATTENBERG: How about -- you have some statewide -- how about Barack Obama?

WALTERS: Barack Obama. I donít think we know enough, right now, about where Barack Obama stands in terms of national politics. We know that his legislative record in Illinois was relatively progressive.

WATTENBERG: Okay. Last -- real fast answer. Jesse Jackson, Jr.

WALTERS: Jesse Jackson, Jr. A real comer and someone who could end up to be Mayor of the City of Chicago and a real force in American politics.

WATTENBERG: Ron Walters, thank you very much for joining us in this second part of our discussion of Black voting patterns, the election of 2008. And thank you. Please remember to send us your e-mails regarding our program. We think it makes it better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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