Black is electable
In a fundamental sense, all Americans should be pleased by the result of the Democratic primary election in Chicago. Pleased because it proves again the vitality of the American political system, which permits any and every ethnic and racial group to make its voice heard. Pleased because blacks, who still are struggling to catch up with a more affluent, better-educated white population, are turning increasingly to the political process as the key to further progress. They are learning, as have other disadvantaged segments of society, that power lies in the ballot box - in gaining control of the levers of government that determine how their schools are run, how their neighborhoods are policed, how their streets are cleaned.
Not that the Chicago mayoral race should be viewed as a racial contest. The Republican candidate has rightly disavowed any interest in a black-white election race. Indeed it is to be hoped that Chicagoans will listen to and watch the nominees with critical eye and make their choice on the grounds of the man best qualified to lead their boisterous city. But it is only realistic to acknowledge the reason for Harold Washington's victory. ''It's our turn,'' he told blacks as he campaigned. ''We don't need to apologize for it, and we're not going to waste a lot of time explaining it.''
Chicago has shown blacks - and, one trusts, all citizens - that they are not impotent if they vigorously participate in politics. Mr. Washington won against heavy odds because of the success of a massive registration drive last year that enrolled 200,000 new voters. A high 75 percent of all eligible black voters were registered for the Chicago primary, and 85 percent of that number went to the polls. Nationwide, only 60 percent of voting-age blacks were registered in 1980 (the figure was 68 percent for whites) and only 51 percent of them actually voted in the presidential election (6l percent for whites). The implications for future elections, local and national, are plain. Now that the black community sees the potential for political office, it is bound to take increasing advantage of it.
Chicago is, of course, only the latest example of the already visible impact of black political participation. Black voter turnout in the midterm congressional elections was pivotal in four elections in the South where Republican incumbents were defeated and in the election of a number of governors across the country. Moreover, the number of blacks in Congress, which had grown by only two in ten years, jumped by three more in 1982, while the number of blacks elected to state legislatures rose from 17 to 337. Today more than 200 towns and cities have black mayors. California almost elected a black governor.
If blacks are learning from all this, so are the nation's political parties. The Democrats have long wooed blacks. The Republican Party leadership is now doing so. GOP strategists are aware that the surge of black political strength is due in large part to disappointment in many of the Reagan administration's economic and social policies. Blacks have lost more ground in terms of jobs, income, health care than any other group. Admittedly, they have made advances in many areas - schooling, house ownership, income levels, the military - since civil rights legislation opened the way two decades ago, but they are legitimately concerned that lingering discrimination not thwart continued gains.
Both parties should want to address these issues. Not because blacks represent a rising political power but because the nation will be at its strongest when all its citizens are brought into the mainstream of social and economic progress - and voters will no longer consider race a factor. When, in short, race is gone from the national consciousness.