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Black voters, black agenda

To identify voters by race is to risk lapsing into the very racism which hampers solution of the world's other problems. The continued identification of voters by race suggests the sad limitations of the present phase of social and political evolution. It obviously has to be done in South Africa, where race benightedly remains the criterion by which voting is confined to the white 20 percent of the population. It can hardly by avoided in Rhodesia, where the good news is that more than 90 percent of eligible black voters went to the polls in the first internationally recognized elections giving the vote to the black majority.

Alas, the color coding of voters hangs on even in a country with America's long h istory of seeking to spread freedom and equality ever wider among its citizens. Yet "the black vote" seemed anything but monolithic as represented by the more than a thousand delegates at the recent National Conference on a Black Agenda for the '80s held in Richmond. A basic challenge that emerged was the need for black leaders and black voters, like the rest of the country, to be prepared for full individual participation in an increasingly sophisticated political scene -- and to undertake that participation.

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Indeed, why should there not be more than 90 percent of America's black minority turning out if this proportion of Rhodesia's black majority can turn out? Yet, as of last year, fewer than a third of some 15 million eligible black voters in the United States were estimated to be registered, and fewer than a third of the registered have tended to go on and vote. No wonder more than 50 black organizations are joining in a voter registration drive.

Not that nonblack Americans have been exemplary voter participants in recent years. But the turnout in 1980's primaries and caucuses has been unexpectedly high. This is the kind of "big mo" -- to use a candidate's phrase for momentum -- that ought to be fostered in all segments of the voting population. We like the idea of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a major voice at the Richmond conference, that registering to vote ought to be as much a part of the growing-up ritual for American young people as high school commencement.

But besides getting out the vote there must be information on the political process, on the domestic issues such as unemployment and equal rights that particularly affect black Americans, and on the foreign issues such as the Middle East in which black leaders are displaying a growing healthy interest. It was easier when they were dealing with racism at lunch counters, said one of the conference delegates: "Now we have to deal with budgets and international problems. to do that, you need to have a broad information base. We've got to transmit that down to the level where the average person can understand."

Cynics, noting the divisions at the conference, contrast with those participants who found it successful in setting up an agenda against which candidates can be tested. Besides the economic issues there was the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, and the severing of US ties with South Africa. The latter is one of those issues on whose dimensions black Americans have disagreed. Some, like Andrew Young when he was United Nations ambassador, argue that US business should stay in, while strengthening its stand on rights for black South Africans, in order to help the economic situation for blacks. Mr. Jackson argues that US business's benefits to perhaps 100,000 employees in South Africa are outweighed by the injustice to millions of disenfranchised blacks that is condoned by continuing to do business there.

But it will do black Americans no good to test candidates according to the black agenda if they do not then go out and vote. The cynics again say that black conferences have been held before -- and there has not been enough follow-up to sustain their brave words. Things can be different this time, if both black and other Americans decide not to leave their political decisions up to someone else.


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