SNELLVILLE, GA. — The black American electorate is at zero hour; a vital decision must be made. After 64 years of mostly unrequited love, black voters must choose to end their unilateral devotion to the Democratic Party. This will not be easy, and what is required for black voters to let go and realize their full potential will be counterintuitive to prevailing political thought in the African-American community.
Prior to 1940, most blacks who were able to vote identified themselves as Republicans because Abraham Lincoln - the great Emancipator - was a Republican. But with the success of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies, blacks began voting for Democratic candidates and by 1960, most had migrated to the party. For the second half of the 20th century, blacks have been a reliable constituency for the Democrats. Yet no longer can we afford to base party affiliation and voting patterns on sentimentalism.
The black electorate has received only a small and inconsistent return on its unyielding loyalty. Self-respecting black voters should not be counted on to flex their enormous political muscles on cue without asking for, and receiving, more return on their investment.
That yield must include more blacks in all levels of Democratic Party leadership and an unfeigned effort to promote blacks for statewide and national office - even the presidency.
Eloquent speeches at the 2004 Democratic convention by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a former presidential candidate and by Barack Obama, a candidate for US Senate from Illinois, are not fair trade for robust black electoral capital.
John Kerry's 11th-hour appointment of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a senior campaign adviser last week has little to do with the Democratic presidential nominee wanting to address the average black voter, and more to do with assuaging Mr. Jackson's elephantine political ambitions by using him to stop any more defections before Election Day. Although a new poll found black support for Senator Kerry has dipped precipitously since August, nevertheless, should Kerry succeed in his quest for the White House, in large measure his victory will be attributable to the millions of black voters who remain the most reliable constituency of the Democratic Party and who will stand in long lines to vote in key states such as Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and Michigan.
Yet the Kerry campaign has done little to court African-Americans. Moreover, black leadership and voters have not demanded more of Kerry's attention. A too easily satisfied black electorate has settled for Kerry's candidacy without question - simply because Kerry is the anti-Bush. Since it is banal for black voters to consider flocking to the Republican Party, which only seems interested in adding a few perplexing and tractable blacks to its ranks - it is not a viable alternative. Therefore, blacks must begin to think of new ways to boost their voting power in all levels of elections.
African-Americans must begin to consider themselves mercenary voters, unabashedly self-interested and steadfast in their refusal to exchange the power of their ballot for any candidate or cause that is not conspicuously to their benefit. A bloc of black voters purposely unaffiliated with one party has the means to become an independent variable that will irrevocably change the American political landscape.
An autonomous and confident black electorate open to voting for candidates across the spectrum who are responsive and accountable, will transfigure American politics. Non-black Americans must not fear a liberated black voting bloc that holds those who court and earn its support accountable. A maturing black American electorate that is conscious of its power and relentless in its pursuit of a new political vision will help to create new and enhanced realities for other Americans, too. After all, black American self-interest, with its uncompromising emphasis on civil and human rights and economic justice, has often been the driving force that has enabled America to reach the moral high ground that differentiates this country among the community of nations.
Investigating and implementing new approaches to expand black political power is a risky endeavor, and there are likely to be notable disappointments as new political alliances are formed. However, not to rethink political strategy is unacceptable.
The educator Booker T. Washington is often quoted as saying, "Cast down your buckets where you are."
For me, that means giving final notice: This is the last time I will cast my vote for a Democratic presidential nominee whose single endearing quality is that he is less openly hostile toward my community than the Republicans are.
I deserve more in return for my vote and my loyalty. No longer will "unrequited" love be an option.
• Benin Dakar writes about political, social, and economic issues affecting the African-American community.