Black politics finds new energy in the '80s
Taken for granted by the Democrats. Ignored by the Republicans.
That's what a number of black leaders in the United States say about their own ''political limbo'' in 1982 as thousands of people gather here this week for the 73rd convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
But these leaders also say America's recent sweep to the political right will change black politics in several ways. They expect:
* A strong backlash to Reaganomics at the polls.
* Overtures by the Republican Party to woo black voters to minimize that backlash.
* A chance for blacks to carve out a more influential power base in the Democratic Party as it rebuilds.
* Less loyalty to the Democratic Party. Disaffection with the Democratic Party, suggest some, could create third-party black candidates in some races and already has led to some tentative black-Republican alliances.
* Increased assimilation into the political arena.
* A renewed push for black voter registration.
Signs of a new black political thrust are evident in renewed, widespread voter registration drives designed to tap the discontent over President Reagan's economic policies. So the November elections, which some see as the first test Reaganomics will face at the polls, are seen as a rallying point for black activism.
Blacks have been ''hurt more and helped less by Reaganomics than almost any other group,'' says Eddie Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank based in Washington, D.C. Black voting clout, which is nearing 12 percent of the nation's electorate, is likely to figure heavily in coming congressional races, he adds.
But, while more than 90 percent of the black electorate remains Democratic, black leaders are quick to add that ''there is no black vote,'' just as there is no identifiable white vote.
''Why is it that people feel blacks have to be monolithic? They are not as dedicated to the party line [today]. . . . They're willing to look beyond sheer partisanship to the individual candidates,'' says US Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York.
''There's the old opinion that blacks are poor . . . but there are class differences [within the black community] and there is no black vote. Black politics have gotten to the point where they're sophisticated enough where there are divisions,'' confirms Andrew Luger, director of the Parker-Coltrane Political Action Committee, an organization that helps campaign to put blacks in public office.
Mr. Williams cites instances of ticket splitting that confirm independent thinking among blacks - such as a 1980 Mississippi congressional race in which black voters backed a Republican candidate who supported the Voting Rights Act, rather than a Democrat who opposed it, or the black backing of Republican Richard Thornburgh in the 1978 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race.
''For the most part, candidates that represent our view are Democrats, but in some instances where the Democrat may be a lukewarm progressive, we may have to put our own candidate in there,'' says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Mrs. Chisholm agrees: ''I wouldn't be reluctant to join a third party, and I've never met so many staunch Democrats - not radicals - who would too.''
Disaffection with the Democratic Party could occur if the party's traditional liberal line is softened by ''liberal and moderate whites . . . who perceive the right wing could bring down their own political careers if they identify too closely with minorities and the poor,'' Mrs. Chisholm says.
But these leaders admit that issues of major concern to black voters coincide with those most often identified as liberal Democratic issues, such as welfare, food stamps, block grant programs, housing, and education. Mrs. Chisholm says the challenge has been to identify the vehicle by which black interests can best be advanced as both Democratic and Republican Parties shift to more conservative quarters.
But she adds that if ''the black vote is going to determine an election'' - which it could in November - neither of the parties can afford to overlook black voters.
The GOP has been involved in a minority outreach program - termed ''coalition building'' - since Ronald Reagan took office, says GOP chairman Richard Richards. This has increased Republican-minority communications from contact with 5,000 minority households to 50,000. It includes recruiting and funding black candidates and field personnel for election campaigns, he says.
These overtures to the black community have most recently included Mr. Reagan's backing of the Voting Rights Act extension - a move black leaders say has been somewhat diluted by its belatedness; his visit to a black family harassed by the Ku Klux Klan; and the elevation of a black, Melvin Bradley, to the post of special assistant to the President.
Mr. Richards adds that such recently publicized Republican overtures are part of the party's long-range outreach program, and not just symbolic efforts to placate black dissatisfaction with the administration.
But even within the ranks of black Republicans there is evidence of dissatisfaction with the administration's treatment of blacks. At a meeting between top White House officials and more than 50 of Reagan's black appointees this month - the first such meeting since the President took office - blacks voiced outright hostility. Among the concerns was the perception that the administration showed little interest in its black members until campaigning began for the November elections.
Phyllis Berry Myers, a Reagan-appointed assistant to the secretary of education who attended the meeting, explained the widespread desire among black officials that they be utilized more by the administration to improve its credibility in the black community. She says that despite Mr. Bradley's appointment, it is still not clear that there is any black White House liaison, as there has been in previous administrations.
Republicans have courted the black vote on the local level by fielding two black congressional candidates this year. One of these is the Rev. Perry Smith, a Maryland congressional candidate whose disaffection with the local Democratic Party machine brought him to the Republican fold, even though he says he doesn't support most of President Reagan's policies. Blacks and Republicans have formed coalitions in redistricting procedures in North Carolina and Mississippi, where Republicans supported creating black congressional districts in turn for black support for new Republican districts.
There are others - though they are few - such as Georgia state Rep. Hosea Williams, a civil rights militant of the 1960s, who have supported GOP policies because they perceive a need for change.
Representative Williams, who admits he is likely to lose his reelection bid this year because of his stand, concludes that the traditional liberal approach to black issues is faulty. Despite the advances achieved by Great Society programs, blacks still maintain a per capita income of $4,800, to whites' $8,200 , and an unemployment rate of 18.7 percent (as of May 1982), to whites' 8.5 percent. The issues of most importance to blacks, concur black leaders from both ends of the political spectrum, are economic problems rather than civil rights issues.
Mr. Williams says black problems can only be solved by stringent, if unpopular, fiscal housecleaning, rather than perpetuating ''handouts'' and a ''welfare mentality.''
Mr. Bradley, special assistant to the President, admits that there is significant concern at the White House regarding black voter reaction to Reagan's policies.
''Blacks, like other people, want essentially the same things,'' he says, adding that job security tops the list. ''Equal opportunity and affirmative action don't produce jobs, the economy provides jobs'' - and the economy is the target of Reagan programs, he says.
Newall Daughtrey, who directs a Dade County, Fla., revitalization program centered in the troubled Liberty City area of Miami, suggests that the Reagan administration ''is going to do more for black America in this century than any other administration, other than Roosevelt, because Mr. Reagan is forcing us to work together.''
This can be an assessment based on negative or positive reaction to Reagan policies, but most observers of the black community concur with Mr. Daughtrey: Blacks are feeling a resurgence of political concern because of the Reagan administration.
Black leaders say that a fount of political energy exists among the nation's more than 200 black mayors, who command significant urban power bases. Asked for lists of important black Americans, black leaders consistently named mayors Andrew Young (Atlanta), Tom Bradley (Los Angeles) and Coleman Young (Detroit).