THE MARCH’S SIGNIFICANCE: BLACK POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
If the March evidenced the inherent limits of modern-day marching and the rhetoric of pessimism, it also signaled a significant shift in African American political culture. The significance of the shift is this: at least hundreds of thousands of black Americans determined that conditions in this country were sufficiently disturbing that they were motivated to participate in what was to be one of the largest demonstration on the Capitol in this country’s history. This unprecedented desire to participate in such a politically significant and sensitive event demonstrates that the black community is ripe to effectively participate in the country’s political dialogue. We use the word "effectively" advisedly because, over the past thirty years, our participation in public discussions of import has been minimal and largely symbolic. The massive response of the black community to the March (despite the not-so-subtle media admonitions to stay home) showed a political will to act together, and, thus, the political potential for future collaborative efforts is nearly boundless.
But, as we have stated and want to reiterate here, black folk marching in this modern-day polity is notably bereft of its historic subversive quality. This conclusion holds for the Million Man March as well. Yet, the March did signify the possibility for black subversive politics. The fact that one million black folk came to the March in spite of the media’s persistent and pointed attacks on Minister Far – rakhan’s central participation is evidence of a political independence too long needed in black political culture. Minister Farrakhan is, in all likelihood, the only political figure who could have drawn that many black people to a march. His appeal is indicative of our claim that most black Americans, at one time or another, have held an antijeremiad—a belief almost inextricably associated, in the public imagination, with the Nation of Islam.
The mainstream political establishment largely condemned the March because of Minister Farrakhan’s leadership role. Many black women rightly criticized the gathering for not only limiting the March to black men but also for implicitly defining responsibility for the community in masculinist terms. Notwithstanding the media’s disapprobation and the Nation of Islam’s chauvinistic exclusion of women, black folk—men and women, young and old, rich and poor, mainstream and marginal—attended the March. Jesse Jackson, a consummate mainstream politician, participated. Maya Angelou, Stevie Wonder, street gangs, church groups, college fraternities and sororities, movie stars, sports figures, lawyers, secretaries, students, both the frictionally and consistently unemployed, professors, teachers, and preachers, just to name a few, decided to participate in the March.
This degree of participation in the March is noteworthy because the circumstances of black folk’s political reality are dismal. In this nation’s broad political debate, the voices of black Americans are muffled or, if heard, largely ignored. The political habits of black America have become so automatic that our participation in the democratic process takes on the quality of what we are calling a political constant—the state of never affecting the otherwise unsteady, often changing, and variegated landscape of American politics. But the African American outpouring, largely in response to Minister Far – rakhan’s call, was unexpected, not so automatic, and, as we have stated, a significant shift in black political culture.
Prior to the March, the potential for black folk acting together in a politically sophisticated manner was relegated to nostalgic memories of the Civil Rights Movement or feeble attempts to duplicate some present-day version of the 1960s revolution. But now, the March may have ushered in a new era of political activism among African Americans, particularly young people who had never before participated in a political event. The past three decades have shown that black folk suffered from an electoral inertia, stuck in political obscurity and unable to fully participate in our democracy as civic equals because we have too long been a political constant.
Another reference to recent presidential elections is illustrative of what we mean by the black community as a political constant. In 1988, Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis were the Democratic frontrunners for the Democratic Party nomination. Jackson, once again, secured millions of votes and brought millions of first-time voters to the Democratic party. Dukakis, however, sought to secure the nomination by ingratiating the so-called Reagan Democrats: they were conservative; they hated the word "liberal" and anyone whom the media attached to it; and they equated Jesse Jackson with the atavistic return to big government, undisciplined spending, and a general erosion of America’s then current prosperity.
Dukakis engaged in a cold political calculus to win the support of the Reagan Democrats, operating from two assumptions: (1) most of the Jackson democrats were black (i. e., political constants), and (2) the Reagan Democrats were political variables—Dukakis had to earn their votes. As such, Dukakis did all he could to distance himself from Jackson and any "liberal" agenda, which culminated in Dukakis’s choosing a running mate without even giving Jackson a courtesy call. In short, Dukakis very publicly embarrassed Jackson and, by extension, the Jackson Democrats. We all remember Jackson’s countenance when reporters asked him what he thought of Dukakis’s choice for a running mate. Jackson, at once, was hurt and surprised; he didn’t know that a decision had been made. Despite all of the votes he had secured, Jackson was still excluded from the decision-making process.
The equation Dukakis used in his political calculus proved correct: no matter what he did, over ninety percent of the black voters would support him. We did. Because we had no recent history of acting in a politically independent way, our vote was taken for granted. Neither Dukakis nor any political party had to jockey for our votes because everybody knew what black voters would do.
Before the March, it seemed doubtful that our community perceived that we had enough common issues to warrant collective effort. Intraracial class disputes, if nothing else, represented a barrier to collective activity. The March, however, demonstrated that we do perceive some common issues, and we showed a political will to act in a way that was unexpected according to conventional wisdom. In the future, this can parlay into heretofore unavailable political capital that can be used to lobby for particular concessions from government and industry. The March, therefore, is symbolic of a potential for passionate, lively action by a community thought to be on its political deathbed.
The significance of the March, then, is that it evinced a new political consciousness in black America that carries with it an amazing potential for directed, collective activity. This potential is important because the true currency of the modern-day polity is power. By power we simply mean the extent to which one influences the distribution of burdens and benefits among the citizenry. Clearly, "one person, one vote" is not an accurate description of the relative influence of citizens in the American constitutional democracy—small groups continue to exact influence on government to a degree that is disproportionate to their gross numbers.
The question then becomes: How can black Americans enter an arena where power is the principal currency? Historically, we have been taught that the vote is the talismanic vehicle that will transport us to political relevancy. But this analysis suffers from a "means – ends" confusion. The goal or end of political participation should be meaningful access to the decision-making processes of government, that is, fair and proportional input into the decisions that control the distribution of burdens and benefits among the electorate—the acquisition of power. The vote is one means toward that end. To the extent, however, that voting, in and of itself, does not lead to fair and proportional input into the decision-making apparatuses of government, our quest for meaningful access should not stop with voting. We have to supplement mere voting with additional, politically mature devices that will provide entry into various decision-making arenas.
Voting, alone, at the dusk of the twentieth century is no longer an effective surrogate for meaningful access to the governing process. Vocal minorities, wealthy donors, well-organized interest groups, and foreign nationals have all realized that power is the most valuable political currency, and each of these groups has acquired access to a degree greater than their collective votes could buy. In fact, if the allegations about the Chinese government’s influence in the 1996 elections are true, then people with no votes have gained access to the decision makers and, thus, the decision making in government. If black Americans are to gain meaningful access to government and become equal participants in political dialogue, we must harness the sort of energy exhibited at the March and use it in a morally defensible and politically efficacious manner.