CALL IT THE guilty-conscience syndrome: the tendency of white voters to claim to support black candidates and then failing to actually pull the lever on Election Day.
Enthusiastic crowds and surging polls don't translate into actual votes. But a large number of races on the state and local level are showing that this may be changing. White voters are increasingly supporting black candidates for major offices.
Cross-racial voting is nothing new. Blacks have been supporting white candidates for a long time. Gov. Rendell and Rep. Bob Brady are two local examples of white politicians who have received strong support from the African-American community.
But white voters have generally refused to support black candidates, especially for citywide positions. No black candidate for mayor of Philadelphia has ever received a majority of white support in the Democratic primary.
This year, things appear to be changing for the better. Recent polls have shown that former City Councilman Michael Nutter, an African-American who champions ethics and tax reform, is primarily drawing his support from white voters. Another large recipient of white support is Chaka Fattah, a black congressman from West Philadelphia. This is an incredible departure from past voting behavior.
Of course, there has always been a strain of cross-racial solidarity in city politics. Thousands of liberal whites fought against the excesses of the Rizzo administration and supported Wilson Goode's historic campaign for mayor. And who can forget former City Councilman Angel Ortiz's eclectic political base of Center City liberals and Puerto Ricans?
However, there are still neighborhoods where many believe a non-white candidate can never receive serious support. But recent mayoral polls, fleeting as they may be, show that this trend might be reversing.
Across the country, there are a growing number of examples of black candidates being elected by majority white electorates.
The best illustration is perhaps Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. Patrick won the Democratic primary and then went onto trounce the GOP candidate. He has an ambitious agenda that includes passing universal health-care coverage and reforming the criminal-justice system.
Before anyone claims that Patrick is just a fluke candidate in an ultra-liberal state, let's remember the history of Massachusetts.
Boston was a major center of anti-integration activism. Some civil rights activists claimed that it was the most racist city in the country. Patrick's election shows that black politicians can also compete in areas with a history of overt racism.
EVEN THE Republican Party is getting into the act.
In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the GOP nominated black candidates for governor. Both got trounced but received the majority of their support from white voters. Some of the most conservative areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio voted overwhelmingly for a black candidate.
There was a time not long
ago that being mayor of a major city was the highest aspiration for a black politician. That limitation is increasingly becoming obsolete.
Barack Obama could be the first black president within the next 10 years. America will finally have access to all the political talent formally restrained by the unwillingness of white voters to support black candidates.
All of this bodes well for Philadelphia. One of the major problems in our city is the balkanized nature of our politics. We cannot confront crime, poverty, segregation, and other social problems without working together. Together, we can avoid the troubled fights of the past and move forward. *
Ben Waxman is a student at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.