If Republican efforts to woo blacks fail, it may be because of
Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The two Jewish civil rights
workers, murdered along with James Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi,
symbolize the historical alliance between blacks and Jews--and
expect to hear about them a lot in the next two months.
Black Democratic activists act like they're taking seriously
the Republican goal of getting 20% of the black vote, as well
they should. And there was open concern that the selection of
a Jew on the Democratic ticket would alienate some rank-and-file
But Sen. Joe Lieberman could not have been more welcome at the
Congressional Black Caucus's meeting during the Democratic National
Convention Tuesday morning if he'd brought Clarence Thomas' head
on a silver platter. Unfortunately for the Republicans' best-laid
plans, the black political class at least appears to have decided
on a course of realpolitik: Don't self-destruct, play the game
as it lies, and focus on extracting maximum concessions (and,
oh my, is Lieberman conceding). Rather than focusing on his religion
or lack of melanin per se, his black supporters have focused on
his Civil Rights activism and a shared legacy of being oppressed
by the same people.
The key is Lieberman's time as a "freedom rider" in the 1960s,
when he went South to help register voters. Dating as it does
from the time when such work was incredibly dangerous (that time
Gov. Bush lauded in his acceptance speech last week but did not
join as it was happening), Lieberman's distant past serves to
leaven his immediate past of some less-than-liberal, less-than-Negro-friendly
political positions (for example, school vouchers, affirmative
action). Jesse Jackson Sr., sensing the magnitude of what was
at stake (both for the party and for the souls of black folk)
set the stage for magnanimity with his early endorsement of Lieberman
and calls for blacks to support him. He said, "our natural desire
for our time to come cannot blind us to the progress that Lieberman's
The Congressional Black Caucus has emulated Jackson enthusiastically.
Every elected black Democratic official who is anybody was in
the San Francisco Ballroom of the Bonaventure Hotel this morning,
along with an adoring black crowd that rushed forward to snap
the senator's picture and yell his name. In her introduction of
Lieberman, District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton,
emphasized pointedly (and repeatedly) that black leaders had embraced
Lieberman and insisted he campaign in their district, meaning
that the members were going to put their personal credibility
on the line to vouch for him to their constituents. Holmes admitted,
delicately, that Lieberman had not been with the Congressional
Black Caucus on "some issues," but "if you're with me most of
the time, you're my man!"
"Don't stray too far," she warned jocularly, "but you're the
man." The crowd applauded enthusiastically, and there were many
call-and response "shout outs." It's obvious that Lieberman is
in the process of being made an honorary brother.
Norton, who has known him since their Yale law school days, began
his introduction by saying: "his faith informs his values and
ours is a faith-based community. When someone breaks a barrier,
we can't be far behind." The meaning was all in the emphasis she
placed on the pronouns. (I can't imagine that a foreigner could
have followed the coded language threading through most of the
events' speeches.) The source of Lieberman's civil rights activism
is being located in his Judaism, which makes the Judaism itself
palatable. The Jesus-denying religion is superseded by the message
that we minorities have to stick together, a message Lieberman
took no time getting to.
Lieberman hadn't been at the microphone more than a few minutes
when he mentioned marching with Martin Luther King in D.C. in
1963 and, inspired by that, moved on to lead a group of Student
Non-Violent Coordinating Committee volunteers to Mississippi.
He dropped the name of most of the luminaries of the struggle
during the dark days. The kicker, however, may have been his mentioning
that Gore had found a letter that Lieberman had written to him
in 1963. Lieberman then quoted Gore quoting himself, to wit that
"he'd gone to Mississippi because there's work to be done. This
is America. We are one people or we are nothing."
Lieberman's work with SNCC is admirable. His courage undoubted.
But quoting your prospective new boss quoting you saying something
heroic and self-sacrificing in the service of the people you are
now hoping to appease? Excuse me, but that still counts as shameless
self-aggrandizement. Clearly, Lieberman has not yet begun to pander.
I shudder to imagine how much more energetically he can tap dance
and how much more energetically blacks will lap it up.
But dance he shall. After he invoked his Civil Rights war stories,
he attempted to defuse the controversy about his record on affirmative
action (the Republicans and the media have promulgated "misunderstandings")
and school vouchers (which, yes, he sort of supports but only
for parents who want to give their kids a "lifeline" out of failing
schools while our beloved public schools are fixed).
Maxine Waters, the California congresswoman who had until today
withheld her praise of the new ticket, closed out the meeting
by making clear what should be the black attitude toward a non-black
minority who dared to beat us to the Executive Branch without
having a perfect record on our issues. "We were right to call
him here to explain himself," she said forcefully. "We demanded
that he clarify his views and made clear that it was time to come
before the Black Caucus. Never follow anybody blindly. It's all
right to do this. Its honorable to do this." And she made it clear
this summons was not the last.
He'll have a lot of explaining to do. But in the end, it may
come down to how many blacks know their history. If Schwerner,
Goodman, and Chaney mean something to young blacks, then Democrats
might keep the black vote.