The Black Commentator called this speech by Howard Dean “the most important statement on race in American politics by a mainstream white politician in nearly 40 years.” I personally think that’s a gross exaggeration, but do I think they are correct to say that the speech is historically important for openly addressing the “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party. Mainstream politicians seem to usually shy away from such open discussions since they like to be able to play this game as well. I also admire the way Dean ties the concerns of Black voters to a general social justice platform that appeals to all segments of American society (education, health care, investing in small businesses, etc.). Yet at the same time, the reason I don’t think it is a more significant speech is exactly because there is so little new or interesting in his specific policy proposals. That is why I think the commentator is wrong to compare this to LBJ’s affirmative action speech. Still … compared with Bush & Co., Dean’s policies are positively revolutionary.
In a similar vein, I recently read an article which claimed that Dean’s very strengths, especially the use of the internet to mobilize voters, could be weaknesses in African American communities which seem to have much lower levels of internet access. I hope he can find alternative strategies to target these voters. Encouragingly, another article suggested that the Democratic party is making changes on this front which should help whomever becomes the Democratic candidate:
The first project funded by Partnerships for Working Families, a nationwide voter-mobilization program set up in the wake of McCain-Feingold, registered a stunning 86,000 new voters. In a city of 1.5 million residents, that’s mind-boggling. Should it portend equivalent successes for the 527s just now gearing up, the turnout of Democratic base voters in battleground states next year could soar.
Here are some excerpts from Dean’s speech:
In 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House. He did it in a shameful way — by dividing Americans against one another, stirring up racial prejudices and bringing out the worst in people.
They called it the “Southern Strategy,” and the Republicans have been using it ever since. Nixon pioneered it, and Ronald Reagan perfected it, using phrases like “racial quotas” and “welfare queens” to convince white Americans that minorities were to blame for all of America’s problems. The Republican Party would never win elections if they came out and said their core agenda was about selling America piece by piece to their campaign contributors and making sure that wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few. To distract people from their real agenda, they run elections based on race, dividing us, instead of uniting us. … Black children and white children all get the flu and need the doctor. In both the inner city and in small rural towns, our schools need good teachers. When I was in medical school in the Bronx, one of my first ERpatients was a 13-year-old African American girl who had an unwanted pregnancy. When I moved to Vermont to practice medicine, one of my first ER patients was a 13-year-old white girl who had an unwanted pregnancy. They were bound by their common human experience. … Every time a politician complains about affirmative action in our universities, it’s because he’d rather not talk about the real problems with education in America – like the fact that here in South Carolina, only 15% of African Americans have a post-high school degree.
UPDATE: I looked around for some statistics about African American internet access. This Pew survey from 2000 shows that it is steadily increasing, but much slower than for White Americans.