Jackson and the mosaic of US politics

WIN, lose, or brokered-out for the presidential Democratic nomination, Jesse Jackson has established a new landmark for blacks in the pluralization of American politics, just as Al Smith did for Roman Catholics when he ran. The difference is that when Smith ran for the nomination (and then presidency), anti-Catholicism was widespread in city gutters, rural farms, and ivy halls. Comparatively little racism has manifested itself thus far with the Rev. Mr. Jackson, though everyone knows it has not disappeared. Jackson's strength, even in areas where few blacks live, proves that not only can a black run for the highest office in the country, but if he or she campaigns hard and long enough, white votes can be won - just as black mayors have been doing for more than a decade. This is the second time in four years Jackson has sought the nomination. It took some 30 years before a second Catholic, John F. Kennedy, received the nomination and won.

Since the Roosevelt years, a plethora of candidates of varying races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds have been elected to high and low office. Despite a bitter history of group prejudice, two Quakers (Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon) and a German (Dwight Eisenhower) became president; a Greek (Spiro Agnew), a vice-president; and another Greek (Michael Dukakis), a leading candidate for the presidency. A Jew (Henry Kissinger) and two Poles (Edmund Muskie and Zbigniew Brzezinski), secretary of state; and a black (Edward Brooke), Lebanese (James Abourezk), and Japanese (S.I. Hayakawa), senator. Four years ago the first Italian - and a woman at that - ran for the vice-presidency, as did the first Scandinavian for the presidency.

As of the 1986 elections, Congress had record numbers of once-despised Roman Catholics (141), Baptists (54), Jews (38), Lutherans (23), blacks (23), Mormons (11), and Unitarian-Universalists (10).

Similar victories have taken place across the country. In the early 1980s, George Deukmejian, an Armenian, was elected governor of California; John Waihee Jr. became Hawaii's first native-Hawaiian governor; and Bob Martinez, a Hispanic, was elected governor of Florida.

Such pluralism helped reduce racial, religious, and ethnic prejudice in government, as well as increase legislation barring all forms of prejudice and discrimination, particularly in our immigration policies. After all, how could the descendants of immigrants tolerate what their parents and grandparents bitterly resented?

Unlike that in other countries of the world, American pluralism did not come about by legislative proportional representation or the formation of religious, racial, or ethnic political parties. Coalition politics rather than group self-interest became the key to success in citywide, state, or national elections. Even Jackson has abandoned his ``rainbow'' rhetoric (which was largely one of color), though blacks, like many ethnic groups, often vote ``for their own kind'' in local elections.

To the credit of political candidates, once elected they are more prone to vote for their district, state, or economic interests, rather than those of race, religion, or ethnicity. Jackson's run is proving that race is no longer an insurmountable barrier, if not for himself, then for those who come after him.

Philip Perlmutter is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.

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