CHICAGO — For the first time in nearly a quarter century, African-Americans are entering the final months of a presidential campaign without the backbone to political activism - an agenda.
Leaders of America's largest minority group have shied away from building their own political platform, apparently because of concerns that a sharply worded agenda may buoy a GOP presidential ticket that they see as, at best, indifferent toward blacks.
In an unusual sign of black conformity, African-American delegates at last week's Democratic convention endorsed the party platform, even though it lacks a comprehensive program to revive the nation's inner cities - traditionally a central demand of the black Democratic leadership. More important, many black leaders have pulled out of a planned national political convention next month aimed at unifying African-Americans.
"This is a unique year, because the right has so scared African-Americans that no one wants to take any chance that they will do anything that will prevent Clinton from getting back into the White House," says Ronald Walters, a government professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Despite President Clinton's mixed record on issues that concern African-Americans, he can apparently rely heavily this election - as in 1992 - on the black vote in many key states. African-Americans could tip the balance for Clinton in Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
"Black political leaders are totally and completely unified behind Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party," says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the center, which specializes in African-American issues. Currently, 81 percent of black voters identify with the Democratic Party, compared with 9 percent for the GOP, according to the center.
Blacks have not always been so pliant for the Democrats. In every presidential election since 1972, when blacks gathered in a historic convention in Gary, Ind., African-Americans have articulated political goals distinct from the mainstream Democratic agenda. They then bargained over their published agenda with Democratic, and sometimes Republican, leaders, Mr. Walters says.
During Jesse Jackson's presidential bids in '84 and '88, blacks advanced from convention-style horse-trading to a full-fledged black candidacy.
"But this year we have not had a major convention of all the black leadership or a published official black agenda. We seem to have gone back to our style of operations before 1972," Walters says.
Besides the nation's more conservative tide, experts point to several lesser factors that are thwarting unified black activism:
*Political style. The confrontational tone of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a chief organizer of the convention, alienated many black leaders. (Despite waning support, Mr. Farrakhan plans to stage the political convention in St. Louis next month, says Lewis Andrews, operations director for the National African-American Leadership Summit, a group backed by Farrakhan.)
*Ideological rifts. As part of a long-standing tension in African-American politics, Farrakhan's black nationalism clashed with the Rev. Mr. Jackson's and other leaders' calls for tolerance and broad social engagement. Both Farrakhan and Jackson announced their own differing political agendas for blacks on July 27.
*More complex challenges. It was easier to rally blacks against the overt, institutionalized racism of the past than it is to oppose the less-obvious forces that may impede full equality today. "It was easy when the battle was against Jim Crow and discrimination," says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.
*Growing political prudence. Some black politicians who depend on white votes avoid embracing controversial goals. (The number of black elected officials has expanded more than fivefold since 1970; and almost all blacks holding elected and appointed offices are Democrats.)
In addition, blacks increasingly flex their political power through compromising in legislatures and city council chambers rather than through pulpit sermonizing. "Black power has shifted into mainstream institutions of power," Mr. Bositis says.
The contrast between Jackson and his son, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois, highlights this change. The elder Jackson made his name through civil rights protest and charismatic oratory. He has never held an elective office. His son has voiced a measured progressivism during his first year in Congress and shown a predilection for legislative give-and-take.
Democrats today apparently are confident that blacks are in their corner. Through the welfare bill, the administration made "a calculation that the majority of the electorate wants this and that the minority that is both black and white that doesn't want it has no other place to go," says Julian Bond, a professor at both American University and the University of Virginia.