Yet many younger black voters seem to be shrugging off the sway of leaders such as Rep. John Lewis and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, siding instead with Barack Obama’s history-making bid to be the nation’s first black president.
It’s a generational struggle that should serve as a warning to Democrats as they head into primary contests in states with large black populations: The black vote today is anything but monolithic.
It also suggests the influence the civil rights leaders have enjoyed as political kingmakers is waning.
In a sign of what’s at stake, a heated dispute has erupted over Clinton’s comment that King’s dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Bill Clinton’s putdowns of the Illinois senator also have offended some blacks. Altogether, the scrap between the Clintons and the Obama camp has awakened racial sensitivities in the party that is supposed to know how to deal with race.
Blacks have traditionally voted overwhelmingly Democratic and Obama is picking up their support fast, according to new polls. An ABC-Washington Post survey this week found a 21-point increase in support for Obama among black voters in the last month, putting him up 60-32 over Clinton. He led the New York senator 49-34 in a CBS-New York Times poll.
Younger blacks don’t share the same loyalties. And some lump older black leaders with the political establishment they say Obama is aiming to upend.
One civil rights veteran who is backing Obama shares that view. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, calls colleagues who are supporting Clinton “good old boys.”
At a speech Wednesday before the Hungry Club at the Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, Lowery said blacks who doubt Obama’s ability to compete are guilty of “a slave mentality.”
Clinton has lined up the support of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, one-time basketball superstar Magic Johnson, Motown founder Berry Gordy and Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson among others. Obama has Oprah Winfrey in his corner as well as R&B crooner Usher.
Clinton has poet Maya Angelou; Obama has the rapper Ludacris—a generational split all its own.
Georgia state Rep. Bob Holmes, former director of Clark Atlanta University’s Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, said blacks in the South could once count on a rigid brand of machine politics in which black churches and civic leaders delivered their voters.
That machine is no more, he said. “The younger generation is more independent and make up their own minds.”
“This isn’t the generation of slow struggle,” he said. “This is the Me Generation and if they see a viable black candidate for president they don’t see a reason why that shouldn’t be possible right now.”
Rick Dent, a political strategist who has worked for Democratic campaigns throughout the South, said older black leaders adopted a more pragmatic political approach out of necessity.
More and more there are two kinds of African Americans—the ones with education and jobs and those with neither. The problem is that the more “color blind” blacks become, the more they gravitate toward whites and away from their brethren at the bottom of the economic ladder. A majority of black Americans surveyed blamed individual failings, not racial prejudice, for the lack of economic progress by lower-income African Americans. The report said in 1994 60 percent of African Americans believed racial prejudice was the main thing keeping blacks from succeeding economically; and only 33 percent blamed the individual. This year, [according to a Pew Research Center survey,] 53 percent said individuals were responsible for their own condition. At the same time, the survey found most blacks believed racial prejudice was still a widespread problem. Sixty percent of African Americans surveyed said blacks often faced discrimination when they applied for jobs or looked for housing.
One result of shifting views on individual responsibility may be changes in blacks’ attitudes toward immigrants. In 1986, 74 percent of blacks said they would have more economic opportunities if there were fewer immigrants; today, 48 percent feel that way. Most blacks and whites who participated in the poll agreed that immigrants tended to work harder at low-wage jobs than workers of their own groups.
On the topic of diverging values, the values of blacks at the top of the economic scale are different than those at the bottom. Forty-four percent of blacks polled in 1986 said they saw greater differences created by class than by race. Today, that figure has grown to 61 percent. The feeling holds for blacks with less than a high school education: 57 percent of those surveyed said middle-class blacks are more like middle-class whites than they are like poor blacks.
Overall, the survey found that there has been a convergence of values held by blacks and whites. Blacks and whites have become more culturally integrated and, therefore, less-affluent blacks feel more estranged. The survey also found that pessimism about economic prospects has grown significantly among blacks. Fewer than half of those polled, 44 percent said they expected life to get better. Twenty years ago, 57 percent had said they thought life would improve.
[Editors Note: Read more about the Pew study, “”Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class” in this AR News story.
[A PDF file of the study itself can be read or downloaded here.]