Fighting Racism Is an Old Paradigm by Lenora B. Fulani
Usually, when we -- as African Americans -- talk about the need for leadership -- we are talking about leadership in the fight against racism. We deal with racial profiling -- at the street level and the corporate level; we mount defenses of affirmative action; we seek justice in response to excessive use of force against us by the police, or cruel and unusual punishment by the courts. Fighting racism is the paradigm (the model) which has defined our issues, our vision and our leadership.
I am, of course, sympathetic to those concerns. I have worked for and continue to be involved in those issues. When families come to me for help in a police brutality or corporate discrimination situation, I respond vigorously. But while I believe these issues are important, I do not regard them as the core of the new Black agenda.
The Black agenda is evolving. It is transforming. New paradigms are coming to take the place of old ones -- in politics, in education, and in psychology. What I want to share with you today is what those paradigm shifts are, who's making them, and what you can do to be a part of these critical new developments.
Does the pursuit of new paradigms mean we have ended racism? No. We have not. We have legally abolished it. That's what the Civil Rights Movement accomplished, and that was a powerful and historic accomplishment. That we are meeting in Mississippi makes that point loud and clear. And we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us -- from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer, from Medgar Evers to Rosa Parks and Ella Baker.
Because of them we are now -- as a people -- legally admissible to all institutions, all aspects, and all avenues of American life. Much of what our present day leadership does, whether it's the Congressional Black Caucus, academics such as Dr. Cornell West and his associates at Harvard, or even my friend and brother Rev. Al Sharpton, is to mobilize for the complete exercise of our civil rights and resist the remaining practices of racism.
As I said, I have respect for those activities and I participate fully in them. But, at the same time, I also have a problem with them. My problem is that while fighting racism appears militant -- and often is -- as a paradigm for Black empowerment it falls short. Why? Because it accepts the existing realities of America's political and economic arrangements and seeks simply to improve or advance our position within them. I believe the next phase in the Black struggle must involve challenging those arrangements altogether.
Dr. West wants more recognition of the need for diversity at Harvard. Rev. Sharpton wants more Black people in public office. The Congressional Black Caucus wants more government money for the social service and economic development programs that its members have engendered.
All these demands are reasonable. But, in my opinion, they fall short because they do not address the more fundamental ways that political power is organized and distributed. What's more, they do not take into account that the paradigm of Black politics is now shifting. It is shifting in the direction of political independence and the formation of new coalitions. The newest generation of Black leadership -- you, the people in this room -- must be leaders whose attention is focused on that shift. That's what I want to talk to you about today. When we talk about the connection between education and political empowerment we must talk about the old paradigms and the new paradigms. We must educate ourselves so that we may educate others.
What is the New Paradigm?
I came here -- to Mississippi -- from New York City. Though I grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania --a small, poor, culturally deprived Black suburb of Philadelphia -- I moved to New York City to go to graduate school, and I never left. I completed my doctoral dissertation there. I raised my two children there.
New York City, as the whole world knows, was the scene of a horrible and devastating disaster on Sept. 11th. Considerably less well known is that New York also underwent a political convulsion of great significance around the same time. This political earthquake included a new direction in Black politics.
What happened? In a gigantic political upset, Mike Bloomberg, a white billionaire businessman running as a Republican and an Independent, was elected mayor of New York City.
Now, sisters and brothers, I know what you're thinking: What could the political fortunes of a white male billionaire possibly have to do with transforming political paradigms and the empowerment of Black people? That is a fair enough question. Here's the answer. Mike Bloomberg won the election against huge odds because some 30% of Black voters who went to the polls voted for Bloomberg and in so doing, they smashed the political paradigm that has governed our political standing for a generation. They voted -- not simply for Bloomberg, but explicitly against the Democratic Party. They rejected the counsel of almost every single Black elected official, of every famous Black Democrat, and virtually every Black minister. Ordinary Black folks -- tens of thousands of people -- became independents on Election Day -- and told the Democratic Party to go to hell.
A Brief History of the Contemporary Movement for Black Empowerment
How did this happen? Where did this Black rebellion come from? What are its consequences? To answer these questions, I have to tell you my story -- for in many respects, I was the architect of that rebellion. The Independence Party -- which ran Mike Bloomberg for mayor -- is a party which I co-founded and which I have shaped to be an instrument of Black political and social empowerment. Let's go back and take a look at the roots of this rebellion.
In 1984, Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for the presidency of the United States for the first time. More precisely, he sought the nomination of the Democratic Party to be its candidate for President. Why did Jesse Jackson run as a Democrat? Because that's where most Black people had landed, politically speaking.
We began our liberated political life as Republicans, followers of the party that abolished slavery. In the 1930's, we began our exodus from the Republican Party, moving in large numbers to support Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the 1960s when the Democrats became the champions of civil rights and voting rights, we completed our partisan realignment. From that point on, Black people voted for Democrats at rates of 90% and upward. In effect, the civil rights movement -- an independent social and political movement -- was folded into the Democratic Party.
In 1972, at the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana, a new phase of Black empowerment struggles began. Black activists from across the country came together to evolve a strategy which consisted of expanding the number of Black elected officials at every level of government. That meant working inside and through the Democratic Party. In essence, the cooptation of the civil rights movement engineered by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and 1965, was completed in 1972 by the Black leadership. They said: Okay, we're going to put all our eggs in the Democratic Party basket. By 1984, when Rev. Jackson launched his campaign, the numbers of Black elected officials had increased over 300%. But it was Rev. Jackson who grabbed the presidential bull by the horns and set his sights on the White House.
That 1984 campaign was an education for the Black community -- an education in the limits imposed on us by the Democrats. On the one hand, Rev. Jackson was an explosive candidate who mobilized and moralized millions of African Americans to involve themselves in the electoral process. At the same time, his candidacy exposed the ingrained and institutionalized racism of the Democratic Party, which sought to marginalize him even as his popularity expanded the Democrats' political base. It was then that we saw the extent to which Black voters had come to be taken for granted.
The Democrats Make Us Pay a Price
After going through the primary process and polling 3- 1/2 million votes -- but being denied an equitable number of convention delegates -- Rev. Jackson was given a prime time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. But, he was instructed that he had to use a portion of that time on national TV to make an apology. He had already been told -- and had agreed -- to repudiate Minister Louis Farrakhan whose Fruit of Islam had provided security for Rev. Jackson early in the campaign. The televised apology was the next dictate handed down by the Democratic hierarchs.
Jackson had to apologize for a highly publicized reference to New York as "Hymietown" -- a remark that was considered anti-Semitic. The remark was, of course, no more or less anti-Semitic than millions of remarks made everyday in the Black community-- just as millions of racist remarks are made in the white and Jewish communities, and millions of sexist and degrading remarks are made about women in locker rooms and bars.
But the Democratic Party, which invented racialistic politics and whose political origins lay in slavery was out to make a point. Its racialist point was both to Rev. Jackson -- and through Rev. Jackson to Black people: They wanted us to know that this was their party and if we wanted to be there, we'd have to do it on their terms.
I remember watching Rev. Jackson's speech on TV and thinking that the 1972 Gary, Indiana strategy had pretty much played itself out. It was one thing to pursue getting Black people elected to office from majority Black districts. The overall political system could absorb that easily enough. It was quite another to have a Black leader raising issues about pervasive poverty and the lack of democracy, seeking to lead all Americans. The line had to be drawn there. And it was.
Though I'd already been involved in independent party building efforts starting in the 1980s, it became undeniable in 1984 that Black people would have to find another political road. Indeed, given the options, we were going to have to create another political road. Moreover, that was not going to be easy. It was going to be resisted strongly, including from within the Black community and Black leadership circles.
Beginning in 1985, the year after Rev. Jackson's first run, a Black newspaper here in Mississippi -- the Jackson Advocate -- devoted 36 straight issues to attacks on me and my efforts to build a national independent political party that would offer Black people an alternative to the racialism of the Democrats.
The more I built that was politically independent, the heavier the attacks were that followed. In 1986, I ran for Governor of New York as an independent on the New Alliance Party ticket in an effort to create a permanent ballot status party. The campaign turned into a feeding frenzy in which the Republicans, the Democrats and the news media accused me of being anti-Semitic because I was a "friend" of Minister Louis Farrakhan. I had never met the man. Nonetheless, I was called upon to repudiate him. I would not. Though I disagreed with the Minister on many issues, I refused to repudiate him because doing so meant repudiating the Black community, something I will never do, no matter the price.
First Independent Presidential Run
In 1988, Rev. Jackson decided to try it again. He entered the Democratic presidential primaries for a second time. That was the year I put together my first run for the presidency. I ran -- not as a Democrat -- but as an independent. I became the first woman and first African American to get on the ballot in all fifty states. I was the first Black woman to qualify for federal primary matching funds. I received nearly a million dollars from the government in that campaign.
I polled nearly a quarter of a million votes -- many from Black students who I spoke to as I toured college campuses in nearly every state. Many of my voters had been Jackson supporters in the Democratic primary, people who had become disillusioned with the two party system after Jackson was deliberately humiliated by the party for a second time, even though he doubled his vote to 7 million.
My campaign, unlike Jackson's, was not a campaign designed to win. It was, rather, about exposing the injustices and inequities that exist in our bipartisan electoral process. I had to go to court more than a dozen times to assert my right to be on the ballot as an independent. I sued the League of Women Voters and later the Commission on Presidential Debates for excluding me. I championed all kinds of structural political reforms to open up the process to independents because I believed both in the principle of fairness and in the need to create new political alternatives usable by African Americans to empower ourselves.
In 1988, when I was running for the presidency as an independent, no one knew what the word independent meant. In 1992, as I began my second campaign the political universe transformed. Ross Perot -- a Texas billionaire with a populist bent -- ran for President as an independent. (Keep your eye on those white billionaires. They may not like it, but I've harnessed them as the engine for some of the most important shifts in the Black political paradigm in the last 20 years!)
The Perot Partnership
Twenty million Americans voted for Perot -- mainly white folks. He got 7% of the Black vote and 22% of the youth vote. And he put independent politics on the map as a major new force in America. My contention, from that point forward, was that Black people had to have a connection to that movement. That movement represented a big and significant paradigm shift in American politics.
Suddenly independents were setting the national agenda. I wanted to make sure that we would grab a big piece of the action. And so I began a process of creating a connection, by taking all that I had built through the New Alliance Party and my two runs for the presidency and linking it to the Perot movement. I was looking for new political partnerships for Black America, partnerships that broke with the liberal coalition that had betrayed Jackson and kept us tied to the Democratic Party.
This strategy of mine was pretty controversial. Just about everyone -- except for the rank and file of the Perot movement and rank and file Black independents -- hated the idea. The white liberal Democrats were infuriated. They called me every name in the book. Communist. Fascist. Brainwashed. Opportunist. The Black Democrats, meanwhile, thought I had gone crazy. The media said I was a charlatan, a snake oil saleswoman. The liberal independents told Perot to get rid of me. The Black left told me to get rid of Perot. I didn't listen to any of them.
I would put meetings together involving white Perot independents -- the "radical white center," as they were called -- and Black "Fulani independents," as they became known. These were some pretty wild meetings. While they were set up to talk about issues of common concern, they were also part of a process of creating a new political culture that came complete with new language. We sometimes talked about ourselves as a coalition of the "overtaxed and the underserved." It was always interesting and challenging.
There were many political initiatives that emerged organically from this process. One evolved into an effort at creating a national independent party -- the Reform Party - -which blew apart during the 2000 presidential season. That experiment was a complete failure. Another attempt evolved into an effort to build an independent party in New York State -- the Independence Party. That one succeeded! And it is the Independence Party which evolved as the political fulcrum of the mayoral upset this past November which has reinserted Black New York into the political game in a whole new way.
The New York Model
The Independence Party was created in 1994. That year it got something called "ballot status." That means a permanent spot on the ballot -- which means being a recognized political party that runs candidates for office on a par with the major parties. In New York, minor parties can do something called cross-endorsement, or running candidates who are also running as Republicans or Democrats. On this scenario, candidates run on more than one line, and their name appears on the ballot several times -- once with each party they're running on.
I was with the Independence Party from the beginning, having taken my New York base and activist following with me. In the first year of the party's existence, I registered thousands of people from Black and Latino neighborhoods into the Independence Party.
My early registration drives in Harlem and Brooklyn and elsewhere were really critical because they established something very important about the nature of the party from the "get go." Black people were in on the ground floor. We were its founders; its shapers; its movers and shakers. The Democratic Party, in contrast, was founded when slavery was legal. The Democrats supported slavery. We weren't in on the ground floor there. We were slaves.
The Independence Party has a different history -- one which we've been a part of from the very beginning. The character and the culture of the party reflect that. You can stand on any street corner in Harlem today and you will soon find Independence Party members. You can go to any meeting of the Independence Party -- be it statewide or in New York City -- and you'll find significant numbers of Black Independents in the mix. During the seven years since its founding, the party has grown rapidly. By last year it was closing in on a quarter of a million members statewide. And it has worked its way up the minor party ranks to become the third largest party in the state -- ranking directly behind the Republicans and the Democrats and well ahead of the other five minor parties in the state.
That made it an attractive and sought after commodity in the world of New York politics. And so, when Michael Bloomberg, white billionaire businessman, decided he wanted to run for mayor, he did two things. He took a look at the Democratic Party and decided it was too corrupt and controlled by the political machine, so he changed over and decided to run as a Republican. Since he was not a politician, not a part of any political machine and wanted to reach voters who were independents, he came to the Independence Party -- to my party -- to seek support.
The Bloomberg Option
On our side, Bloomberg was an attractive candidate. He was liberal on every social issue -- more liberal even than the Democrats. He supported our political reform agenda and agreed to campaign on it. But most importantly, his candidacy gave us the opportunity to strike a blow to the Democratic Party machine, which had sold itself to special interests and empowered itself by playing the worst kinds of racialistic games. The New York Democrats and their relationship to Black leaders and the Black community make the insults to Rev. Jackson look like compliments!
Here's how we looked at the Bloomberg race. If Bloomberg -- a 20-to-1 underdog -- could beat the Democratic mayoral candidate with the help of the Independence Party, and if I could bring significant numbers of Black voters into that anti-Democratic Party, pro-independent coalition, that would be a huge breakthrough for a new kind of Black empowerment. Why? Because it would mean that Black people no longer had to rely on the Democrats for our political voice. And it would mean that our voice would be louder, clearer and more effective if we weren't Democrats, but Independents.
The story of the mayoral race must be understood in this context and against this backdrop. And it was an extraordinary sequence of events -- some have called it a "perfect storm."
The moment the Independence Party announced its endorsement of Bloomberg, the media ran articles and editorials attacking him for his association with me. The Democrats -- all four of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination -- publicly attacked me and denounced Bloomberg for taking the Independence Party endorsement. The day that Mike and I met for the first time -- we shook hands and chatted for two minutes at a breakfast in Harlem -- the TV news ran film of the handshake complaining what an odd partnership it was and once again criticized me for being a friend of Farrakhan's. I have to say, I almost felt a little sorry for Mike. I'm used to taking the heat. Mike's used to being treated like a billionaire. It was definitely a baptism of fire.
I went out into the streets to campaign for Mike. I stood on street corners and talked to ordinary citizens about how important it would be for Black New Yorkers to vote for Bloomberg.
Again, the Black Democratic leadership thought I was crazy. New York's premiere Black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, suggested I was on the take. Rev. Sharpton, a Democrat, was talking about a Black-Latino coalition to back Fernando Ferrer, one of the Democratic candidates. Other Black Democrats, including former Mayor David Dinkins, were campaigning for Mark Green, a white liberal Democrat who was the frontrunner. I toured the city's Black churches advocating for Bloomberg. Mike kept his distance from me -- he was afraid of the media. That just made me work all the harder for him. I wanted to keep raising that contradiction.
The Democratic Meltdown
The September 11 attack came on what was supposed to be primary day. The elections were called off and pushed back and all campaigning stopped as the city grieved and tried to recover. The campaigning resumed several weeks later and the Democratic primary turned fierce as Green and Ferrer fought with each other and forced a head-to-head runoff in October.
Then the gloves came off and it was Democratic Party racialism par excellence. Green, the white candidate, began to attack Ferrer for having Sharpton's support. The right- wing media joined in. Scurrilous racist leaflets were circulated that many people believed were done with the knowledge of the Green campaign. Ferrer became a cause celebre in the communities of color, but in the final round he lost to Green.
That set up the general election. It was Bloomberg versus Green. Only now, tens of thousands of African Americans and Latinos were furious at Green and the Democrats. They were disgusted by the racialism of the campaign and by Green's arrogance in refusing to accept any responsibility for what had happened.
And there I was. With Bloomberg and the Independence Party. The Black media -- enraged over the Democrats behavior -- turned to me and to Bloomberg. Black radio talk hosts and deejays started advocating on the air for Bloomberg. The Amsterdam News -- which had forcefully criticized him just a few months earlier -- endorsed him, along with nearly every Black and Latino publication in the city. My phone was ringing off the hook. People wanted buttons, literature, signs. They wanted to vote for Mike -- but they didn't want to vote for him as a Republican. They wanted to vote for him as an Independent! And because of the Independence Party, they could.
The streets were wild on Election Day. I worked a poll in Central Harlem from 6AM to 9PM. There was a fever in the streets. Yeah, Green was getting a lot of Black votes. The Democratic machine was still very powerful. But something else was happening, too. You could feel it. A new politic was coming into existence that we created. A new paradigm was breaking through.
When the votes were counted that night, the story could be told. Mike won in an upset! He won by only 35,000 votes; 59,000 votes had come on the Independence Party line. The Independence Party had won it for him. But there was more. The next day the exit polls came out. Between 25% and 30% of Black voters had gone for Bloomberg. The Black independents at the grassroots had elected the mayor of New York City. That fact has altered the dynamics in New York politics. I've begun holding a series of town hall meetings -- the first was in Harlem, where 400 people from the Black community came out to hear me and some of the city's most popular Black radio personalities talk about the results and where we go from here. The Black community has begun to establish itself as an independent political force. If we keep building that, we will be able to set the agenda on political process and social policy in the years to come.
That's what you call a paradigm shift. That's what you call a new political modality. And that -- sisters and brothers -- is what we must build off of in the months and the years ahead.
Is the Democratic Party still powerful in our community? Of course it is. Look at Rev. Sharpton. He's thinking of running for President and he's thinking of running as a Democrat. I disagree with that strategy. I think that's a dead end road for him and for us. We've been over that ground and we've moved ahead. We don't need to go back.
What happened on Election Day in New York is really a little bit like what happened that fateful day in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 when seamstress Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. She wasn't famous then. No one outside her own family and friends knew her name. But on that particular day, she decided she was too tired from work and too worn out from years of abuse to sit in the colored seats. Her decision helped to propel a new and independent movement of Black people that changed America.
That's what happened on November 6. A lot of ordinary Black working folks -- enough to make a very big difference -- decided they weren't going to sit in the back of the Democrats' bus anymore. Nobody knew their names. But it's because of them that Mike Bloomberg is the 108th mayor of the City of New York today. And it's because of them that we see an opportunity for a new and independent political movement of our people.
We must go forward -- independently. And I invite all of you to join with me in doing that. New paradigms need new leaders -- new builders -- and new thinkers. We need your creativity and your commitment to our people and our cause.
Come speak with me or my colleague, Omar Ali so that we can talk more about how we can work together and bring independent politics to your campus.
I'd like to end with a quote by Dr. King. It's from his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, written in 1967:
"In the future we must become intensive political activists. We must be guided in this direction because we need political strength more desperately than any other group in American society. Most of us are too poor to have adequate economic power and many of us are too rejected by the culture to be part of any tradition of power. Necessity will draw us towards the power inherent in the creative uses of politics."
I invite you to join me in the creative building of a new political movement in this country so that we can live up to our vision and our history as the conscious of America.
Editor's note: The above is taken from the Keynote Address at the Eighth
National African American Student Leadership Conference Rust College, Mississippi delivered by Lenora B. Fulani on January 19, 2002
Dr. Lenora Fulani chairs the Committee for a Unified Independent Party,
Inc. She can be reached at 212-962-1811 or at cuip.org
Tuesday, October 29, 2002