When Is Enough Enough?

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When Is Enough Enough?

by
Bob Herbert

Chances are you didn't hear it, but on Thursday night Senator Hillary Clinton said, "If H.I.V./AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country."

Her comment came on the same day that a malevolent majority on the U.S. Supreme Court threw a brick through the window of voluntary school integration efforts.

There comes a time when people are supposed to get angry. The rights and interests of black people in the U.S. have been under assault for the longest time, and in the absence of an effective counterforce, that assault has only grown more brutal.

Have you looked at the public schools lately? Have you looked at the prisons? Have you looked at the legions of unemployed blacks roaming the neighborhoods of big cities across the country? These jobless African-Americans, so many of them men, are so marginal in the view of the wider society, so insignificant, so invisible, they aren't even counted in the government's official jobless statistics.

And now this new majority on the Supreme Court seems committed to a legal trajectory that would hurl blacks back to the bad old days of the Jim Crow era.

Where's the outcry? Where's the line in the sand that the prejudiced portion of the population is not allowed to cross?

Mrs. Clinton's comment was made at a forum of Democratic presidential candidates at Howard University that was put together by Tavis Smiley, the radio and television personality, and broadcast nationally by PBS. The idea was to focus on issues of particular concern to African-Americans.

It's discouraging that some of the biggest issues confronting blacks — the spread of AIDS, chronic joblessness and racial discrimination, for example — are not considered mainstream issues.

Senator John Edwards offered a disturbingly bleak but accurate picture of the lives of many young blacks: "When you have young African-American men who are completely convinced that they're either going to die or go to prison and see absolutely no hope in their lives; when they live in an environment where the people around them don't earn a decent wage; when they go to schools that are second-class schools compared to the wealthy suburban areas — they don't see anything getting better."

The difficult lives and often tragic fates of such young men are not much on the minds of so-called mainstream Americans, or the political and corporate elites who run the country. More noise needs to be made. There's something very wrong with a passive acceptance of the degraded state in which so many African-Americans continue to live.

Mr. Smiley is also organizing a forum of Republican candidates to be held in September. I wholeheartedly applaud his efforts. But if black people were more angry, and if they could channel that anger into political activism — first and foremost by voting as though their lives and the lives of their children depended on it — there would not be a need to have separate political forums to address their concerns.

If black people could find a way to come together in sky-high turnouts on Election Day, if they showed up at polling booths in numbers close to the maximum possible turnout, if they could set the example for all other Americans about the importance of exercising the franchise, the politicians would not dare to ignore their concerns.

For black people, especially, the current composition of the Supreme Court should be the ultimate lesson in the importance of voting in a presidential election. No branch of the government has been more crucial than the judiciary in securing the rights and improving the lives of blacks over the past five or six decades.

George W. Bush, in a little more than six years, has tilted the court so radically that it is now, like the administration itself, relentlessly hostile to the interests of black people. That never would have happened if blacks had managed significantly more muscular turnouts in the 2000 and 2004 elections. (The war in Iraq would not have happened, either.)

There are, of course, many people, black and white, who are working on a vast array of important issues. But much, much more needs to be done. And blacks, in particular, need to intervene more directly in the public policy matters that concern them.

In the 1960s, there were radicals running around screaming about black power. But the real power in this country has always been the power of the vote. Black Americans have not come close to maximizing that power.

It's not too late.

© 2007 The New York Times

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