Commentary

Candidates: Don't Underestimate Black Women

Thursday, August 24, 2000

The publicized "women's vote" that gave Bill Clinton his victory margin in 1992 and 1996 was really the vote of Black women, not White women. And Black women's "stealth power" could strike again this year--if Black women turn out to vote.

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Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich

The Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles this month actually looked better than America, from the African American point of view. The 872 Black delegates made up 21 percent of the delegate total, with the 497 African American women comprising 57.1 percent of all Black delegates. In addition, Black alternates numbered 119 in Los Angeles, compared with 108 in 1996 in Chicago and 104 in 1992 in New York City. Black Democratic National Committee co-chairs were Lois DeBerry, Tennessee's House Speaker Pro-Tem, and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

By contrast, the Republican National Convention earlier in August in Philadelphia reflected a dramatic and graphic difference. African Americans numbered 85 delegates, 4.1 percent of the delegate total. Thirty-seven, or 43.5 percent, of these Black delegates were women. Black alternates in Philadelphia numbered 76, up from 50 in 1996. African American Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma was one of three convention co-chairs.

Given the public participation of Black headliners and celebrities in national telecasts from Philadelphia, my impressions as an on-site convention observer were that more Blacks were in front of the TV cameras than actually were voting and making decisions during the Republican National Convention process. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Republican Party Platform reflects few of the priority policy positions of African Americans, especially those identified by African American women.

Vice Presidential nominee Richard Cheney sought to allay concerns about this apparent substantive lapse during one of his first television interviews following his designation as nominee George W. Bush's running mate. Cheney stated that hardly anybody pays attention to the party platforms anyway, so one should not unduly obsess about what is or is not included there, or whether the platform planks actually track the candidates' rhetoric. Therefore, "compassionate conservatism" is apparently a pudding, the proof of which is in the eating, not in the planks of the Republican Platform. African American women, speaking in focus groups conducted during both conventions, found the perspective reflected in Cheney's comment to be quite disturbing, as they begin mobilizing Black voters for the November election.

The platform emerging from the Democratic National Convention is more reflective of African American priorities. African American participation threaded more visibly through many convention policy making processes, but Black women still express strong concerns that the power of their vote is not acknowledged, and often appears to be marginalized in both parties' interpretations of voting behavior. African American women, after all, provided the margin of victory for President Bill Clinton both in the 1992 and the 1996 presidential elections.

Much of the mainstream media perpetuate the myth that a generic "women's vote," apparently meaning all voting women, made the difference in both of these elections. In fact, a front page New York Times article, this past March 26, headlined: "Presidential Race Could Turn On Bush's Appeal to Women." But this generally masks a significantly different story, and actually ignores the dynamic of the Black women's vote.

Both in 1992 and 1996, exit pollsters reported that White women's votes were relatively aligned with White men's votes for President Bill Clinton: 34 percent of White men and 44 percent of White women in 1992; 31 percent of White men and 42 percent of White women in 1996. Hardly a winning majority either time, and not a strong mandate.

However, when the African American women's vote was averaged in with the White women's vote, President Clinton was a clear victor. In 1992, 86 percent of Black women voted for Clinton, and in 1996, 89 percent of them voted for the President, raising the "women's vote" to the winning majority of 54 percent and 51 percent for those two years respectively. Thus, in both elections, White men and White women, as well as Black men (in 1992, 77 percent and in 1996, 78 percent), voted less enthusiastically for Clinton than did Black women. Given the ideological and personal distinctions between candidates and their party platforms with regard to African American core issues in the 2000 campaign, Black women's stealth power could strike again--if Black women turn out to vote.

Focus groups, conducted by the Black Leadership Forum, Inc., and the National Political Congress of Black Women during both recent nominating conventions, as well as earlier in Chicago and Washington, D.C., have agreed consistently on the priorities of African American women:

Rebuilding their own communities, physically and institutionally, and demanding that government support this priority;

Equalizing the quality of and access to public education and, thereby, eliminating the real digital divide;

Advocating for affordable family health care, including prescription drug assistance and HIV/AIDS treatments and prevention;

Building capital, including dollar support to political action committees, growing wealth, raising wages and equalizing pay; and

Making all institutional privatizations accountable to the Black community.

Black women view children as the warp and woof of the entire community fabric, not an isolated population to be separately "brought from behind." Black women also view Black males as partners in rebuilding the Black community, not as separate targets for independent remediation, nor should they be obstacles to Black women's advancement.

These priorities are the engine of African American voter mobilization. But Black women are the fuel. Candidates of both political parties take this vehicle of "election success" for granted--at their own peril.

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is executive director and chief operating officer of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc.

All convention statistics in this article were generated by David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Washington, D.C., a Black Leadership Forum founding member organization.


 
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