Blacks are breaking those political barriers

By David Broder

The Washington Post

It was a very good day for Democrats in the Nov. 7 off-year elections and a very bad day for Republicans who espoused the rigid anti-abortion position that President Bush has defined as orthodox GOP doctrine.

But on the day when L. Douglas Wilder’s narrow victory in the unofficial Virginia tally gave the nation its first black elected governor, while other blacks won mayoral contests for the first time in predominantly white cities from New York and New Haven to Seattle, it is the race-relations message in which Americans can take most satisfaction.

But there is no reason for smugness. Wilder and David Dinkins, the winner in New York City, had much closer calls than the pre-election pools indicated and both trailed badly behind their white ticket mates.

Although each apparently won about one-third of the white vote, two-thirds of the whites found reason to oppose these notably moderate, non-threatening candidates.

John Daniels, the new mayor of New Haven, and Norman Rice, the winner in Seattle, did better with their white constituencies. These barrier-breakers and others elected or reelected as mayors in cities like Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit join a growing battalion of black officials.

The Joint Center for Political Studies (JCPS), a Washington research center on matters of special concerns to blacks, counted 7,226 such elected blacks as of last Jan. 1, up almost six percent in a single year and almost 50 percent more than a decade earlier.

But Eddie N. Williams, the president of JCPS, cautioned in an interview and a recent speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that the progress in elective politics is to be seen in a context of “persuasive racism.”

Even as New York voters were choosing Dinkins, Williams noted, the city’s police department reported a 200 percent increase in “bias-related crimes” between 1983 and 1988.

The Urban League’s annual report pointed out the irony that on “the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution that defined blacks as ‘three-fifths’ of the other persons” for the purpose of apportionment, “black income is well below” three-fifths that of whites.

The black middle-class has increased significantly in size and increasingly shares neighborhoods and friendships with middle-class whites. But a black under-class has become the focus of the nation’s worst crime and drug problems.

Even acknowledging the problems, Williams is right when he says that victories like those recorded Nov. 7 “are symbolically eloquent” of positive change in America. Defeated white opponents, he noted, “avoided any hard-core use of the race issue,” and significant numbers of white voters “were ready to support black candidates and, by implication, some of the interests of black constituencies.”

Jesse L. Jackson, who can rightly claim that his two presidential candidacies opened the eyes of many other black politicians to the possibility of their prevailing in their predominantly white constituencies, argued that the voting was another sign that “we’re changing the psyche of America.”

Clearly it is important when Colin Powell becomes national security adviser to the president and, now, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is important when William H. Gray III becomes the majority whip of the House of Representatives and when Ronald H. Brown becomes chairman of the Democratic Party. It is significant when Bill Cosby’s television family becomes the model of endearing middle-class domesticity; when Bill White becomes president of the National League and Frank Robinson American League manager of the year; and when Oprah Winfrey is described by a news magazine as “the most powerful woman in America.”

It raises the sights of blacks when they see other blacks succeeding on such a scale. And it changes whites’ attitudes when we deal with blacks in such positions of such power and prestige.

But do not exaggerate the change. In the political world, blacks may have one governor—of 50; 24 Representatives—of 435; there are still no black Senators. Williams is undoubtedly right when he says that expansion of political power will increasingly require coalition-building of the kind Dinkins and Wilder and the other winners demonstrated, for the new black victories in the ‘90s will come mainly in majority-white constituencies.

But the paths for progress are not a matter for easy agreement. Williams, in his Madison speech, urged that blacks seek “a more balanced partisan alignment” with Repbulicans, instead of their overwhelming attachment to the Democratic Party. Jackson saw the victories being achieved by blacks who “clearly distinguished themselves from the Republican Party and its philosophy.”

At Howard University this week, scores of scholars have been debating strategies for strengthening health, education, housing and economic development in the black community, aiming at a blueprint for progress. The way is not yet clear. But after the Nov. 7 elections, a few less barriers remain.