Black-Jewish Relations in Election-Year Politics
The selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Isadore Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic party has been heralded as a major historic “first” and an exhilarating “breakthrough” of the ramparts of mainstream American public life. Whatever the political motive and moral “necessity” behind presidential candidate Al Gore’s choice of a running mate, for at least two generations, many policies and programs of the Democratic Party have attracted Jews and Blacks. Lieberman’s nomination may be seen as a continuation of a rather substantial Jewish presence in a party which routinely receives upwards of 88 percent of the Black vote and which is perceived by African Americans as the national political party most helpful to their causes and interests.
Lieberman’s call for presidential rectitude during the Monica Lewinsky scandal made him a national figure, his presence on the Democratic ticket now touted as taking the conduct issue out of the forthcoming campaign. Not so well known were Lieberman’s anti-affirmative action and pro-school voucher stances, two opportunity-access issues of great salience for the Black community. He initially supported California’s Proposition 209, a court-approved measure banning race and gender preferences in public contracting, employment and school admissions at all levels.
Seeing the tax-funded, private school voucher movement as undermining public education for the vast majority of Black students, African American mainstream leadership has reservations about Lieberman’s pro-voucher views. He is one of a small minority of Democrats who supported a 1994 Republican school voucher plan. As anti-affirmative action policies increase in higher education, and the so-called minority “set-aside” programs decline in the government expenditure field, the public school voucher plans are slowly gaining ground across the nation. The unease among many Black leaders regarding Lieberman’s candidacy was perhaps best summarized in the comments of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., quoted as saying of Lieberman, “We have questions about affirmative action … and we have questions about education and vouchers.”
In fact, things were so uneasy that a special appearance was quickly arranged to reassure those who publicly questioned Lieberman’s support for affirmative action and public education. In a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus on his first day at the Democratic convention, Lieberman assured delegates he supported affirmative action despite statements in the past that indicated otherwise.
The affirmative action issue, of course, has been a source of friction between the African and Jewish communities for nearly a quarter century, an issue which brings to a fine point the past experiences and present aspirations of both groups. Historically, the quota aspect of affirmative-action proposals echoes exclusion for Jews, and suggests inclusion for Blacks. While both groups aspire to a future where neither creed nor color will be a criterion for access to educational and economic opportunities, the contentious issues involve the principles, methods and standards to be followed in truly equalizing opportunities.
Seldom has the detailed political history of a vice-presidential nominee generated this level of anxiety. Gore’s political views only became important to the general public after his first election, and his mainstream Protestant faith has never been an issue. In contrast, even before the nominating convention, Gore stressed the “breakthrough” significance of Lieberman’s being Jewish. However, the African American mainstream still is more concerned about the impact of Lieberman’s position on social issues than his religious life, lest his dreams realized translate to Blacks’ dreams deferred.
— Adams is chairman of Howard University’s department of Afro-American Studies, and co-editor of Common Quest, a magazine focusing on Black-Jewish relations.
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