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Bridging the Black Generation Gap in Electoral Politics

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Photograph of Bernie Sanders with Jesse Jackson

Recent primaries have shown a stark division between older and younger Black voters. What can we learn from the Rainbow Coalition about how to build unity and move left?

The results of the Super Tuesday Democratic Presidential Primaries and the subsequent primaries exposed a fault line in electoral politics that the left must address. In state after state, Black voters, the most reliable base of the Democratic Party, went overwhelmingly for Joe Biden, the moderate alternative to socialist Bernie Sanders.

But the Black vote is not monolithic. Older generations of Black people favored the moderate candidate in droves, while a large percentage of young Black folks went for the radical reformer. For the left, this poses a strategic question: How do we bridge that gap and move older Black voters to embrace more progressive and leftist candidates and political views?

At another historical juncture but under different circumstances, the left faced a similar question. The 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign for President and the Rainbow Coalition was the training ground for young leftists like myself. We learned how to engage in the electoral arena and also the art of bridging younger and older generations. We faced off against the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the most conservative administration in recent history at the time, and a Democratic Party that was dominated by its moderate wing.

I was a thirty-five year-old African American community organizer in Seattle in 1984. The Jackson campaign leadership included the elder Black clergymen who were local leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the pillars of the Black community. They were very suspicious of left organizers and kept us at arms’ length. But because we proved reliable in working with them in doing voter engagement, getting out the vote, developing a platform, and organizing for the caucuses and the county and state Democratic Party Conventions, we were able to forge relationships of trust with liberal and moderate Black leaders.

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Immediately after the November 1984 elections, the antiapartheid movement swung into full gear across the country, including in Seattle. I became a co-chair of the Seattle Coalition Against Apartheid, which began orchestrating weekly demonstrations, civil disobedience and arrests at the home of the South African government’s representative in Seattle. The Coalition was an initiative of the left that gained wide support from its outset because of years of antiapartheid organizing. By 1984, “apartheid” had become a household word and the Black community was a consistent base of support for the liberation movements in South Africa. As a result, those moderate and liberal Black leaders were among the first to approach the Coalition leaders about participating in civil disobedience. They organized Black clergy and were arrested at the first demonstration.

The relationships forged in the 1984 Jackson campaign and the antiapartheid movement endured. In the 1988 Jesse campaign, more progressive and left leadership rose through the ranks and catapulted Jackson into a second place primary finish in a state with a scant Black population. It also was the springboard for the election of the first (and only) Black person as chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, a thirty-something progressive with strong ties to the left who had been one of the ground organizers in the 1984 campaign and a key antiapartheid movement organizer.

Though Jackson lost the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, the campaign was instrumental in bridging the generational and class divide within the Black community and uniting communities across racial lines. The electoral gains made between 1984 and 1988 were a result of sustained cross-generational and cross-racial organizing that continued over the four years within the Rainbow Coalition and the antiapartheid movement. The left was an indispensable part of sustaining that momentum.

The experience of the Jackson campaigns and the antiapartheid movement holds lessons for the left today. We had to push for progressive stances and make compromises when necessary. One major victory of sorts was a left-initiated resolution introduced by the Jackson campaign in 1984 at the King County Democratic Party Convention. The resolution called for recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” That resolution was endorsed unanimously within the Jackson campaign and was defeated at the convention by a margin of only five votes.

We created relationships of mutual trust between the different wings of the Rainbow Coalition and worked together in fashioning a platform, educating voters and mobilizing them to the polls. Leftists and progressives had real influence in the campaign because we took the time to engage with our more moderate leaders strategically.

The political terrain today is much different than the mid-1980s. While Jesse Jackson was an unabashed progressive populist, he was not a leftist à la Bernie Sanders. Jackson had longstanding ties to the Black establishment and to grassroots activists in Black communities. He was able to craft a cross-class alliance in his Black base that became the foundation of the Rainbow Coalition and his candidacy. He did that by paying attention to the issues and concerns of the Black middle class establishment as well as the pressing needs and aspirations of folks in the community.

The landscape is different but the political imperative is even greater than it was. In the era of Donald Trump and naked white nationalism, the Black community’s political muscle is critical to beating back authoritarianism and anti-democratic politics and to advancing towards progressive social change.

But we have work to do. We witnessed the tense relationship between the Black Lives Matter activists and the older Civil Rights leaders, with BLM leaders rejecting “respectability politics” of the bygone era and calling for a more inclusive and radical agenda for the Black community. And we saw the generational split in the primaries. The left’s focus on organizing and political education of Black youth and youth of color is the right way to go. But it’s not sufficient.

Black political power is crucial to progressive leadership, as it has been in past periods of US history. In this political moment, building multigenerational unity in the Black community around progressive politics must be a priority. it is not optional to do the work to get there. It is absolutely essential.

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