February 10, 2007
By Lenora Fulani
Two weeks ago, I spoke at a national conference of independent voters. There were 500 activist independents, from 31 states – over a third of whom were African American. This conference was the latest indicator that black voters are more politically volatile these days, more independent in their voting and thinking. Many will be receptive to Barack Obama and his presidential campaign. A pressing question is whether he will return the interest. Independents may be ready for Obama. But is Obama ready for us?
With independent voter registration growing in Harlem, Oakland and Newark, there is a new constituency in African American politics – the Black Independent. As many as 35% of younger black voters now identify as independent, rather than Democrat. Forty-seven percent of African Americans deserted the Democratic nominee in the 2005 New York City mayoral race to re-elect the Independent Republican Mike Bloomberg. Last year, 32% of Augusta, Georgia voters rejected a Democrat incumbent state legislator and cast ballots for the black independent Helen Blocker-Adams. Black America is no longer a political monolith. Traditional partisan politics have lost their appeal.
Barack Obama is a critic of partisan politics whose road to prominence did not pass through the standard Democratic Party stopping points, i.e. the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the local empowerment machines of the 1970s or the Rainbow surge of the 1980s. He would seem to be a natural fit for black independents.
But as soon as Senator Obama got into the first “scrap” of his campaign – the ridiculous remarks made by Senator Joe Biden about how “clean” and “articulate” Obama is – his response made black independents totally invisible.
Obama issued a statement that listed prior black presidential candidates to show Biden that he wasn’t the first clean-cut African American to run for the White House. The list included nearly everybody – Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carol Mosley Braun and Shirley Chisholm – everybody, that is, but me, the black independent who ran for president twice, and who made the history books for being the first African American ever to get on the presidential ballot in all 50 states. Even the “white bread” USA Today included me in its recent historical review.
Perhaps Senator Obama left me off the list because I’m not clean enough. The New York Post does generally refer to me as the “odious Lenora Fulani,” but I always took that to be a right wing political polemic, not a comment on my perfume. No, I suspect I was left off because I’m not a Democrat. I wouldn’t be shocked if his advisors told him – “Don’t put anyone in your statement who isn’t a Democrat.” If that’s true, it’s a very unfortunate piece of advice. Because in leaving me off the list, Senator Obama crosses a growing portion of black America off his list, too.
Being black is not synonymous with being a Democrat anymore, as much as the Clintons – and others – would have us believe. No less a figure than Reverend Al Sharpton has made that point loud and clear, including when he has spoken out against attempts by white Democrats, like Senator Hillary Clinton, to drive black independents like me out of politics.
Barack Obama has just made it official. He’s running for president of the United States. His message is that it’s time to put principles ahead of partisanship. Black independents have been acting on that idea for years. How he relates to us is the first real test of his principles.