Although this is not the first time we have seen exciting female and black American male candidates run for the nation's highest office, (remember Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, etc.), this is the first time in the nation's history that a female candidate and a black American male candidate both have a significant opportunity to win their party's nomination by the summer, and the general election for U.S. President in the fall.
And that's not all. For the first time in history, we have two sitting state governors, Deval Patrick elected in Massachusetts, and David A. Paterson, who was elevated from Lt. Governor to New York State Governor.
In California, the Honorable Karen Bass was just elected as the state's (and the nation's) first African American female Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly, one of the three most powerful political positions in California state politics.
Speaking of California, we also currently have the highest number of elected U.S. Congressional and State Assembly/State Senate members (12), even when comparing that number to the heyday of black politics in California during the late 1960s and early 1970s when Wilson Riles, Mervyn Dymally, Leon Ralph, Theresa Hughes and others were setting the standard for effective public service. Out of approximately 12,000 elected officials in some level of California state government, we presently have over 180 black American elected officials, from the Water District Boards and an Orange County Sheriff to the State Assembly and Senate. That's 1.5 percent of California's elected officials for a population that stands at 7.5 percent of this state.
But beyond those optimistic statistics (if you see the cup half full) lies a pervasive and dangerous trend: African American citizens are not taking the American political system seriously enough to be able to maintain the advances they have made, let alone build on and expand those numbers to higher ground. In essence, we are allowing ourselves to be marginalized by taking the status quo for granted and falling in love with political mediocrity.
"Humbug," some will say. "The current numbers speak for themselves." Yes, they do, but that's an entirely different argument, including the fair share consideration. Without even bringing up the issue that a large number of our California black elected officials do not see themselves as either solely or primarily responsible to the black community-a great many of them will overtly make the point that their constituencies are multi-ethnic and multi-racial so they cannot afford to focus on black concerns- we are already in deep trouble.
Why? First, there is the simple and natural change in demographics that has diluted three current "black" city council districts to one (the 9th and 10th are not "black" districts in population anymore), and there is no dominant black population in any of the five current Los Angeles county supervisoral districts. Most analysts predict the upcoming election to replace Yvonne B. Burke in the 2nd supervisoral district, to be the last one at that level which will have the presumptive winner as black.
Second, politics has become so much about money that too many highly talented African Americans just won't bother to organize and run for office, or even when they do register to run they won't be taken seriously. They will generally earn the ignominious label of "fringe candidate."
Thirdly, coalition politics has already become such a persistent presence in California that more and more citizens see color less and less as a requirement to represent their interests in public office. Thus, black interests can be just as well, if not better, represented by candidates who are Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, or habitually Anglo Americans.
Fourthly, there is very little training going on by the current crop of black elected officials of new, young public servants. The political pool of black candidates is at a very low point, and in most of the races we have a merry-go round of the same faces. During the 1970s and early '80s, the Honorable Mervyn Dymally and other California political activists maintained an effective 'young black political leaders training process' that produced some very successful public servants who well represented the black community. Currently, that process is noticeably absent. What happened to it and why hasn't that successful pattern been duplicated and re-introduced in California?
With all that as a context, there is a strange belief currently existing within the California black community that black folk do not have to "be political," yet blacks will still get their due. This belief further holds that blacks don't need to study intensively and become at least literate in and informed about the American and Californian political system. This belief, which is as pernicious and nonsensical as the one which says doing well in school is a "white thing," is also a lead weight that has but one logical consequen, the crashing and burning of meaningful African American participation in public policy decision-making in this state and the further marginalization of the California black constituency. And this is not a projection for the far off future. This consequent can be seen in the haze-filled air just over the horizon.
The African American community in California cannot afford the luxury of its wide-spread ignorance and disregard of the political system in which that community lives, works, procreates and dies. Waiting for the American and California political system to be fair and to do the right thing is like waiting to win the California Super Lotto. Both are exercises in relentless exasperation for the vast majority of us and both cost far too much in the short and long term with little, if any, reward.
Here's the skinny: Politics is not and will not be fair, and politics will not , without serious pressure, do the right thing. Neither is in the nature of politics. In fact, politics works for and benefits best only those who can articulate, advocate and defend their own interests, and the history of politics in this country clearly bears that out.
So, wake up, black community!! Just because you are being taken for granted by others in the system now is no reason for you to take your own political intellect for granted. Don't politically punk yourselves. How many of you know your eight direct representatives (from at least the federal level to the district and community college board levels)? No, the Honorable Maxine Waters does not represent all of you at all levels. Do you know how to contact each of your representatives? Do you know how to get service from them? Do you know what relevant questions to ask of them when they run for re-election? Do you have an effective measuring stick to assess their performance level in office? Do you know how to articulate to them your own interests?
To be sure, having a significant number of black elected officials in California and in the USA overall is a grand achievement. In 1965, just before the passage of the Voting Rights Act and its several amendments, there were less than 30 African Americans in elective office in the entire country. In California, there were less than five. Currently, according to census data from the federal government, there are over 9,900 black elected officials in the USA, and, as stated above, over 180 in California. The accomplishment of such a dramatic shift in less than 45 years is remarkable, but the other part of the coin, the necessary follow-through, (if you will), is to maintain a vigilance and accountability regarding those elected. After all, simply being black does not mean an elected representative will understand, agree with or articulate black interests any more than being female means the representative will effectively advocate and defend feminist issues, or being overweight means one will well represent the obese.
Lack of this follow-through is the most critical political issue facing the black community in California.
Are we, for example, keeping up with the presidential race beyond the personalities of the two leading Democratic candidates? Do we understand the DNC's delegate structure, including regular and super participants? Do we understand the difference between those California Democratic Party delegates elected in caucuses across the state on April 13, and the electoral college delegates California will elect in November?
In the race for L.A. County Supervisor, District 2, have we asked all of the candidates running enough questions to determine who is best qualified and best oriented to become our representative on the most powerful county board in California, and possibly the entire USA? It will not be in our collective best interest to elect someone we will not have access to after they are comfortably in office, who will not be responsive to community concerns, and who will arrogantly abandon us. Thus, we need to put the candidates through a rigorous and relevant job interview every time we have the chance.
On Saturday, April 26, for example, there was a 2nd district candidates' forum at CSUDH (California State University, Dominguez Hills), sponsored by the California African American Political and Economic Institute on the Dominguez Hills campus, and the Carson Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club, for all of the current 11 candidates for that position. Due to an administrative mix-up and miscommunication, three of the candidates who confirmed and neither of the two leading candidates participated, but the show went on well without them. Through the prism of presentations and responses to questions, the five candidates who did participate clarified plainly that only two of them knew enough about L.A. County government to even be in the race, and all five candidates kept confusing Los Angeles City government with Los Angeles County government. There was, for instance, a lot of discussion about getting the Mayor of L.A., the LAPD and the LAUSD to change their policies and procedures and not nearly enough discussion and comment about Sheriff Baca, the County Jail, and the L.A. County Department of Education. Out of the five, only one presented proof of a plan he had devised that the public could peruse about resuscitating Martin Luther King Hospital, which is one of the central issues in this campaign.
There are several other very important races on the political agenda for 2008 in California. We can take care of all of them and demonstrate our political literacy by paying attention, going to candidates' forums and asking for tangible proof of plans to improve our community, and by staying informed. Or we can keep doing what we have been doing and thus keep getting what we've gotten, disregard, disrespect and being taken for granted.
Wake up, black community!! Your political future, and that of your children, is on the line.