In his speech at the Republican National Convention, General Colin Powell
spoke boldly to racial issues, telling a somewhat alarmed audience that he
supported affirmative action and opposed the growing imprisonment of people
of color. Amidst nervous applause, Powell signaled that the Republicans had
for the first time brought a show of race to center stage. His words
indicated a shift in the presidential race. What he did last week, and what
Al Gore will no doubt match during this week's Democratic National
Convention, is to effectively usher in an era in which politicians will more
freely capitalize on racial buzz words in order to court the growing
Unfortunately, this does little to actually remedy the racial problems
confronting the nation. The mainstream candidates, while cashing in on
multiracial images and Civil Rights rhetoric in order to win votes, have
predictably stopped short of posing any serious challenges to the status
quo. Powell's speech is a case in point, as he proceeded to endorse George
Bush, a man who unabashedly defends the racist criminal justice system and
the death penalty in Texas, a state which has, at present, killed more
people of color by execution than any other in the nation. The speech did
less to represent people of color than to assuage white guilt, applying a
thin veneer of 'diversity' to make conservativism more palatable and
justifiable to white voters.
By contrast, Ralph Nader is actually addressing some of the big issues
affecting people of color. In tackling thorny topics such as corporate
globalization, environmental abuse and child poverty, Nader often speaks to
problems that have their most devastating affects in communities of color.
However, he almost never points to the racial dimensions of these issues.
His silence is rendered more conspicuous by the sudden Republican and
Democrat attention to the topic. Considering the fact that Nader works to
appeal to an audience of "progressives," many of whom are people of color,
his colorblindness, is also strategically shortsighted.
Among the 19 issues listed on the official Nader2000 website, including such
entries as "Clinton-Bush-Gore," "Fair Trade," and "Industrial Hemp," concern
for racial justice is not obvious. The topic is largely absent from Nader's
speeches, even in his talk at the NAACP convention. In the past year, he has
shied away from some of the most heated racial issues facing communities of
color and been absent during difficult moments of national racial turmoil.
He has yet to take a pro-active stance on the phony "war on drugs," racial
profiling, militarization of the border, the incarceration of Mumia
Abu-Jamal, the bombing of Vieques, the rise in police brutality and was
absent following the acquittal of the four officers who slayed Amadou
That Nader is coming under fire for relegating race to the peripheries is
neither new or surprising. During his 1996 campaign for the presidency, he
failed to take a stand against Proposition 209, which ended affirmative
action in the state of California. Nader defended himself by saying, "I've
come to believe that in a political campaign, if you don't focus on basic,
fundamental, democracy issues and corporate power, the media will scatter
you in terms of other issues."
To Nader, racism is apparently an addendum to 'real' social justice issues.
In reality, the problem of the twenty-first century is, sadly, still the
problem of the color line. Most people of color are tired of colorblind
politics that are designed to shut race out of the conversation and keep
white America comfortable. When asked specifically about racial issues Nader
is usually quite candid and supportive. But unless asked directly, he seems
content to render the topic invisible.
The issues that Nader focuses on are so intrinsically linked to race and
racism that he appears to be tiptoeing around an elephant when he fails to
mention the topic. For example, he speaks volumes about environmental abuse,
yet touches only lightly on environmental racism. When most toxic waste
dumps are in neighborhoods of color and one in four Native American people
living on a reservation are housed within the vicinity of a toxic site, the
glaring racial implications of these sobering facts deserve serious
At present Nader seems to be drawing fire for this approach. After following
Nader to a campaign event, even a most approving journalist from the Nation
felt compelled to comment that "At a fundraising breakfast...Nader struggled
a bit with questions on race. The Mesa Verde restaurant owner was
disappointed that he wouldn't address a query on the Hispanic vote. An
African American grad student felt that he ignored blacks. When someone
asked about Native American rights, he referred the issue to his absent
running mate, Winona LaDuke."
While a few prominent people of color, such as Randall Robinson, have
enthusiastically endorsed Nader, he has failed to garner much support in
communities of color and has yet to win the endorsement of any major
non-white organization. Many activists of color have been repelled by Nader.
When Hop Hopkins, an organizer and co-founder of the Seattle-based Brown
Collective, went to hear Nader speak he was skeptical but genuinely
interested. Having been a central organizer during the WTO protests, he
respected Nader's tough stance on globalization. As a long standing activist
in the black community, he appreciated that Nader often took on problems,
such as child poverty and environmental abuse, that had their deepest and
most damaging effects in the black neighborhoods where he worked. As he
listened however, he was troubled that Nader never seemed to speak of or to
people of color.
At the end of the hour he asked Nader why he wasn't talking around race,
tackling important issues but forgetting to mention those most affected by
them? And how did Nader expect to win black support if he didn't do more to
reach out to the black community? Nader answered the question with a
question: "you ask what I have done to reach out to the black community and
address racial issues and I ask you, how many black people did you bring
here today to hear me and support this campaign?" Hopkins left the room
viewing Nader as another white, male progressive interested in the black
constituency but brashly unwilling to earn or represent it.
Hopkins' conclusion was not atypical. Others have noticed that while the
Democrats and Republicans openly celebrate "diversity," Nader, although he
is of Lebanese descent, personifies a brand of colorblindness that is
endemic in the white American left. Because of his work in the current
protest movement against the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, Hopkins, like
other organizers of color, situates his critique of Nader within the
framework of the larger tension that exists between non-white activists and
the new white left.
With the rise of the contemporary struggle against globalization, the nation
stands poised, for perhaps the first time in thirty years, for a powerful
new movement. Yet the gatherings in Seattle, DC and elsewhere have been
riddled with bitter racial politics stemming from the marginalization of
people of color from every aspect of these actions. Many activists of color
look askance at Nader in the same way they do at white anti-globalization
radicals, viewing him as emblematic of a contemporary protest movement which
risks life and limb to fight corporate globalization, only to ignore the
third world people most brutally oppressed by these forces.
It is not clear whether Nader deserves this much heat. For those who measure
his silence on race against the backdrop of his 40 years of tireless
advocacy, Nader is a candidate worthy of full support. He has worked
non-stop for human rights and aided several campaigns in communities of
color. Tony Affigne, co-founder of the Rhode Island Green Party and the
Puerto Rican Action Committee admits that Nader has not addressed the
bombing of Vieques and is quiet about race but says in his defense, "there
are gaps in Nader's thinking but I support him very much despite the gaps."
He describes Nader as always open to learning about the issues affecting the
Puerto Rican community and is willing to overlook the fact that Nader "comes
from that part of the progressive movement that believes that racial
questions are used to divide workers."
Winona LaDuke, Nader's vice presidential running mate and long-time activist
for Native American rights, centralizes race in her own campaign but says,
"I think Ralph talks about the issues he feels most comfortable talking
about. He has never pressed me into the service of speaking on issues that I
am not really versed in...So I'm not going demand that Ralph talk about
LaDuke warns against harshly criticizing Nader, reminding people of his long
history of work on key issues, saying, "We need to be careful on the left,
in the progressive or 'people of color' movements, or in the Greens, to not
make it so we are islands of political correctness unto ourselves, where it
is only those who hold absolutely every stand that we are willing to
support...I do not expect that everyone will speak to every issue."
Others, however, believe that Nader can and must speak more strongly to
race. The real tragedy is that there is clearly a disconnect between Nader
and communities of color despite the tremendous potential for a common
ground and mutually supportive alliance. By far the most progressive
candidate, should Nader choose to pull race from the margins to the center
of his campaign, he could provide great impetus to the growing people's
movement and positively reframe the election year debate.
Vanessa Daniel is a research associate at the Applied Research Center in
Copyright ColorLines 2000