‘Freedom’ to Move Forward

Author Says ‘Leverage’ Is Key to Black Political Power

Posted July 25, 2005 at 3:37pm

If the black community wants to become a force to be reckoned with in the next century of American politics, it needs to work smarter, not harder, Ronald Walters suggests in a new book, “Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics.”

In “Freedom Is Not Enough,” Walters, the author of numerous books on the intersection of politics and black leadership, picks up on themes that will be familiar to his readers: barriers to equality, political mobilization and power positioning. But he also offers a new look toward the future by harking back to an old idea from the civil rights era.

“Freedom is not enough” were the words President Lyndon Johnson used in a speech at Howard University in his final push to authorize the Voting Rights Act in 1965. “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates,” Johnson continued.

Walters, a professor of government and politics and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, builds on that notion by arguing that black political power is ultimately dependent on the ability of the black community to gain and exercise “leverage,” which he describes as holding future presidential nominees accountable to the needs of blacks.

And according to Walters, the recent efforts of blacks to gain such leverage leaves much to be desired.

“The Black political leadership has succumbed to a politics of ‘positioning,’” writes Walters. “During the primary and caucus season of the 2004 elections, most of the Congressional Black Caucus, for instance, endorsed different candidates in an attempt to position themselves to exercise individual leverage.” In doing so, Walters adds, black political leaders lost their ability to “aggressively push the [Democratic] party to dignify the interests of their national constituency.”

“That was puzzling to me,” Walters said in an interview about the CBC’s presidential endorsement strategy. “I said, ‘Don’t they get it?’ They would have been far more effective had they acted collectively.”

But while Walters’ views in “Freedom” are in the end optimistic, he first leads readers through a scathing, but well-documented, reminder of how blacks have had their right to vote challenged again and again, even after that right was guaranteed by Congress and the courts.

“The suppression of the Black vote is a phenomenon that has survived the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and other laws designed to protect the right of Blacks and other American citizens to vote,” Walters writes.

Through a mix of statistics and reports, culled from sources such as the Census Bureau and Justice Department, Walters chronicles how “many of the old racial barriers to the unfettered right to vote, thought to have been weakened by the Voting Rights Act, still exist, while others have arisen with the use of new electronic voting technologies.”

And, here, Walters is critical even of current efforts to implement voting rights for blacks. “The Help America Vote Act did not successfully address the issue of intentional Black voter disenfranchisement,” he writes of Congress’ response to the 2000 presidential election. Additionally, Walters argues that the Supreme Court, through its interpretation of enfranchisement efforts, failed the black community as well.

In ruling against racial gerrymandering in the 1993 court case Shaw v. Reno, Walters writes that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor attempted “to neutralize what has been a positive characteristic of Blacks, whites or any other culturally coherent group: The positive benefits of their unity as the primary context through which they are able to exercise their political opportunity.”

In Walters’ view, the building — not breaking down — of black Congressional districts, in addition to getting the CBC to endorse candidates as a bloc, is what is going to give black politicians and the black community leverage. And while the right to vote is the basis for minority power, it is not enough in a world where “one political party or another will attempt to reduce the number of black voters in order to obtain a clear electoral advantage when an election is particularly competitive.”

Rather than getting hung up on the negative, though, Walters’ message is one of empowerment and self-determination. “Much of the lack of respect and the treatment Blacks receive from the Democratic party, and which motivates the feeling and the fact that Blacks are being taken for granted, resides in the failure of Black leaders to bargain using the resources of the power of the Black vote,” Walters writes.

At a time when Republicans are trying to court the black community by talking up the benefits of President Bush’s “ownership society” and making known their desire to be active participants in the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act — provisions of which are set to expire in 2007 — Walters’ message is important, both to Republicans and Democrats.

Walters’ own politics are clear. He worked on and has written about the importance of the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and he dismissed Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman’s recent apology for the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” saying that rhetoric is not credible in the absence of policies to create economic opportunities for urban blacks.

But at the same time, Walters challenges black political leaders to question whether their vote is respected or taken for granted within the Democratic Party. In doing so, he gives the next generation of black leaders what he believes, based on decades of academic and field work, to be a strategy for ensuring that both parties are responsive to what could be an even more powerful vote.