July 8, 2004
The selection of John Edwards as the Democratic vice presidential candidate is promising for African-Americans, but he should not be given a free pass.
Edwards is a white Southerner from working-class roots who grew up in the 1960s surrounded by the foment of the civil-rights movement.
The Democratic Party that Edwards entered decades later was different from the one that housed racist Southern Democrats like Sen. Strom Thurmond and Gov. George Wallace.
Fortunately, Edwards himself seems to understand the legacy of Southern racism. As a senator, Edwards called on his colleagues to speak out on race issues everyday, not just when it was convenient or popular.
"We all have a responsibility when it comes to issues of race and equality and civil rights, but as a Southerner, I feel an especially enormous responsibility to lead on this issue," Edwards said on the Senate floor on May 17. "This is not an African-American issue. This is not a Hispanic-American issue or an Asian-American issue. This is an American issue. It is about who we are. What our values are. What kind of country we want to live in. What kind of country we want our children and grandchildren to live in."
Edwards voting record, too, reflects a sensitivity to race issues.
In 2000 and 2001, he cast votes that were 90 percent to 100 percent in sync with the preferred positions of the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. This is quite a contrast to the civil-rights positions taken by the Bush team.
The real test, however, will come when Edwards goes out to middle America where many whites have been won over to the notion that racism is dead and affirmative action is the problem.
The next test, assuming a Kerry/Edwards victory in November, would be to translate the rhetoric into policy.
And for all John Edwards' fine words about race, it will take more than that to uproot the deep-seeded inequalities that define this nation.
For us civilians, that means more work.
More monitoring of how elected officials actually vote.
More research on the issues they vote for or ignore.
And more agitation to not only choose but shape national platforms.
Yes, there are citizens groups and nonprofit organizations that do this, but we need to do it en masse. Protests, petitions and town halls are the stuff of a vibrant and robust democracy. Smiling faces and "good hair" won't cut it.
Let's not only get out the vote, let's get out and talk, debate, argue and mobilize. That is real politics, and some of the most pivotal moments in American history have been shaped by such initiatives and movements.
Kerry and Edwards say America needs a new team in the White House. We also need a new political culture in the streets.