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Red, Black, but Not Green: Green Party Challenges in the Black Community

Roger White
Date Published: 
October 01, 2006

Black voters in the US are like all other voters here with one exception. Many of our ancestors had to die for the right to vote for the lesser of two evils. Naturally, we want our votes not only to count (no slam dunk) we want them to make a difference. Because Blacks are not an electoral majority in any state or nationally, maximizing the worth of our choices by being a part of an electoral coalition that has a real chance to win power is a priority.

Black voters tend to register their anger and frustration at the political status quo simply by not voting, not by supporting third parties.

This wasn’t always the case. 100 years ago over one million Blacks, primarily from the south and west, played a critical role in the rise of the Populist Party—a mass based third-party movement that sought to hold the northern industrialist establishment politically accountable for dropping crop prices and predatory monetary practices. At first white populist leaders like Tom Watson from Georgia advocated for racial unity in the struggle against the railroads and the banks. But after a populist split in 1896, Watson and other white party functionaries betrayed Black Populists and either defected to the Democrats or sat silent as they and white southern vigilantes reimposed white supremacy through disenfranchisement and mob violence. Black populist leaders and supporters were killed. We learned our lesson. This was the last time any multiracial third party enjoyed support by the masses of Blacks.

Today, Black fidelity to the Democrat Party provides real rewards for the Black political class. It offers jobs, contracts, and the comfort of a Time-Life version of the 1960s civil rights movement featuring John Kennedy and Martin Luther King holding hands towards the promised land. Of course the Republicans offer more money. But who wants to be a sell out? Greens offer little but symbolism on the part of Black elites. A vote of conscience. Short of dropping out of electoral politics altogether, which growing numbers of people are doing everyday, that symbolism maybe more important than the all the “lost” Black votes in Florida and Ohio that Democrats were unwilling to fight for.

The environmental, peace, and third world solidarity movements from the 1970s and 80s, the grassroots of the US Green Party, has always represented a policy majority and a cultural minority—a minority that Black activists found it difficult to relate to. We agreed with and worked with white progressives on some issues (South Africa, nuclear freeze) but never developed the kind of cultural and social affinities that nurture and sustain movements from one campaign to the next. A political consequence has been that the organizations that were created out of these progressive movements—Global Exchange, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth—lack the levels of Black participation that could sustain critical mass organizing in our communities. In the August 7, edition of The Nation, Mark Hertsgraard quotes Jerome Ringo, the new head of National Wildlife Federation, in a cover story on the state of the environmental movement. “I am the first African American in history to head a major conservation group.” I don’t know whether Ringo said this with sadness or a sense of racial pride. In either event it helps to explain why the Green Party has so few Black adherents.

The failure of “outreach”

What do white activists do when there aren’t enough dark people in the room? Outreach.

Set up a table at the public university in town. Pass out fliers for the next meeting at the Saturday morning flea market. E-mail blasts to activist- of -color list-serves. Whatever works. Problem is—that shit don’t work. Moreover, white activists know that shit don’t work. But they get a double bonus. They can pretend to be doing something “pro-active” to bring in colored folks with the knowledge that few if any colored folks are coming in—at least not to stay (they’ve been known to slip out right before the vegan pot-luck). Multiracial organizing is not easy. Doing it in bad faith makes it harder.

Another problem is proximity. The Green Party is heavily influenced by three main demographics—educated, urban, nonprofit activists; educated, university town professionals; and well-to-do hippies in the exurbs. All three bases of support have organizations and social networks that provide the party with multiple, reinforcing contacts with potential recruits, volunteers and leaders very few of whom happen to be Black. Although environmental justice organizations like Project Underground and Green Action have been doing great work in Black communities, the Green Party has little institutional infrastructure there. The DC Statehood Green Party is one of a few exceptions.
Furthermore, the party’s ties with the Black church, the hub of Black political and social activity, are non-existent. Whether this is because of old style party defense of political turf on the part of the Democrats or the subtle contempt that some green progressives have towards religion, the failure of the Party to build relations to this central Black institution is at the heart of its failure to reach the Black electorate.

Organizational inclusiveness can not be achieved by reaching out. It can only be achieved by getting up, going to where the struggles for human dignity and justice are being waged and fighting with the marginalized.

Choosing battles carefully?

In a 2002 piece called “Turning the Green Party Black” Donna Jo Warren, a former candidate for California Lt. Governor, described how she became a Green. “While attending a meeting in South Central Los Angeles, I met a young man who handed me some dog-eared sheets of paper, describing the “Green Party” and its platform. “My God,” I spurted out after I had read what he had given me: “I’m a Green!”

Donna Jo Warren is special. It takes more than a pamphlet for most folks. It takes demonstrating that the political organization seeking to recruit you has a living commitment to you and your community and is ready to struggle for what it claims are its principles.

Green campaigns like Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential run and Matt Gonzalez’s 2003 mayoral run in San Francisco were pretty sympathetic to the racial and economic justice concerns of the Black community, but both failed to inspire significant numbers of Black voters. Blacks consistently poll as more progressive then other groups on most issues, particularly on racial and economic justice issues and war. In the Nader campaign of 2000, however, the proportion of Black voters who supported the Green Party was the smallest of any other major racial demographic—except whites. In the San Francisco race Gavin Newsom, a Yuppie Democrat with centrist tendencies, beat Gonzales in heavily Black precincts. Some of this was due Black liberal leaders defending their Democrat Party constituent enclaves by taking racial cheap shots. But some of the racial rift reflects simple political tone deafness on the part of Greens.

Big Bad Willie and Evil Ackerman

Eager to make Board President Gonzales pay for his unwillingness to rubber stamp his appointees (many of whom were Black) Mayor Willie Brown inserted himself in the middle of the San Francisco mayoral race to succeed him by attacking Gonzales from a tactical stronghold, the Black church. “He’s got some kind of defect in his head that makes him believe African Americans aren’t qualified.” This indictment came from a man who presided over the largest exodus of Blacks from San Francisco since WW II. The number of Blacks who became homeless under the Brown administration increased exponentially. Brown did appoint more Blacks to high level positions in the city bureaucracy then previous mayors. He kept his class commitments to the Black bourgeois.

The Gonzales campaign quickly responded by calling Brown a “liar,” highlighting the number of Blacks involved in his campaign and Matt’s long time commitment to racial justice. But during the Gonzales campaign, the candidate often appeared to be running against Mayor Brown and his backroom machine style politics instead of Supervisor Newsom and his record. In addition, African Americans can be politically sensitive to white charges of Black corruption. Not only because of racist double standards but also because of the history of powerful whites using these charges as a way of discrediting effective and popular Black elected officials. Willie Brown made scores of enemies over his 40 plus years in California politics, some of them very powerful. If he was so corrupt for so long was it just dumb luck he never got caught with his hands in the cookie jar?

On the San Francisco School Board three Green Party members lined up against Arlene Ackerman, a no-nonsense Black female educator who helped to raise test scores, and turn around failing schools. She also had broad support not only in the Black community, but from all over the city. While the Greens on the board didn’t constitute a majority they were powerful enough to squeeze her out after five years over a controversy around a pay raise led to a lawsuit.

Much of what Green Party school board members Sarah Lipson, Eric Mar, and Mark Sanchez proposed under Ackerman’s tenure, small schools, disarming police on campuses, have wide support in Black neighborhoods. But the real reason for Ackerman’s early exit had more to do with clashing personalities than policies. The progressives on the board didn’t like Ackerman’s “style.” She was too uppity, too forceful. She didn’t play well with others. She showed contempt for some of the Greens’ pet causes (like the banning of irradiated meat from district schools). All this may be so, but Blacks and progressives from all over the country are watching San Francisco because of the relative strength of the Green Party. If Greens don’t find more politically savvy and constructive ways of working with African American leadership, the racially-tinged tiffs that have peppered Black and Green relations in San Francisco could become yet another symbol of the inability of Greens to make and maintain meaningful alliances with Blacks. If the Green Party has learned anything over the last few years it’s that supporting reparations, and being against the death penalty is not enough when you’re competing against a party that is perceived by most Blacks as being an historical ally in the fight for civil rights. The words are right but the music is off.

Nader factor

The story of Ralph Nader’s relationship to the Black electorate is familiar. Nader was a spoiler. His arrogance in running for president as a Green party candidate in 2000 and an Independent progressive in 2004 jeopardized Black political interests. In 2000 the objections were more tempered. Jesse Jackson and John Conyers sent polite letters to his campaign thanking him for his long record of progressive service, agreeing with him on a number of issues and telling him to please not to run. Randall Robinson of Transafrica was a campaign co-chair and Cornell West came out strong for Nader in 2000.

In the run up to 2004 things got ugly. West, along with a whole host of other nervous and apologetic progressives, pleaded with Nader not to run. Nader’s attempt to secure the Green Party nomination was blocked by party activists like Medea Benjamin who supported David Cobb and candidates who agreed to a “safe states strategy” to make sure the Democrats could continue to ignore Green Party issues in their head to head against Bush. The Vice Presidential candidate, Pat LaMarche even claimed “I think I would vote for Kerry if it were close.” It’s nice to know that the presidential ticket you’re voting for might cancel out your vote with their own. Black voters are supposed to switch parties for this?

The Black Congressional Caucus served as a vanguard attack dog. Caucus representatives held a highly publicize meeting with Nader during his 2004 presidential campaign that was notable for its “frank exchanges.” Congressman Melvin Watt from North Carolina exploded, “You’re just another arrogant white man—telling us what we can do…it’s all about your ego—another fucking arrogant white man.” Nader is actually a Lebanese American but you get his point. In a July 14, 2004 letter to the Black Congressional Caucus Nader politely asked for an apology.

The party strategy was to pull Nader into a high-profile back and forth with black leaders in order to demonstrate to African American voters the “arrogance” of progressives who dare to challenge Democrat party hegemony in the black community. He didn’t take the bait. But like many white progressives, his approach to racial issues was that they are subordinate to the “real” problem—corporate social domination. Under this view Black suffering is little more than the effects of corporate malfeasance—a kind of capitalist collateral damage that has more to do with class than race. In the above mentioned letter, Nader refers to “racial profiling” and the failed “war on drugs” as effects of “corporate forces” and regularly failed to confront racial conflict in the US on its own terms. Unfortunately Nader is far from alone on the Left in this respect.
The only time that the political establishment has ever responded to Black demands for social justice has been when it has had to choose between accommodation or the prospect of prolonged racial strife. The Radical Republicans took up the cause of ending slavery in response to the growing militancy of the abolition movement. 100 years later the Democrat Party showed tangible support for Civil Rights and economic justice only after confronted with racial standoffs in the 1950s and the rise of the Black power movement and Black urban uprisings in the 1960s. In this respect nothing has changed. Regardless of whether Blacks are voting Green or Democrat or not voting at all, our influence and power will only be as strong as our grassroots movements are.


Roger White is a criminal justice researcher for the Data Center in Oakland, CA, and the author of the 2005 book, Post Colonial Anarchism.