HOW important is it that blacks vote in November? Should they sit this one out, objecting that they get very little from either major party? The evidence suggests that significant numbers of black voters are doing just that.
Blacks constitute a significant fraction of likely Democratic voters in all the large states Democrats must win to capture the presidency - California, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. It is important for Bill Clinton's campaign - and it should be significant for blacks - that Gov. Clinton and Rev. Jesse Jackson embarked in September on a three-week voter registration drive.
Black Americans should vote their positions on the issues. The issues will be with us long after questions about a rift between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jackson have faded. Researchers at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank specializing in black issues, report that blacks support virtually all of Clinton's positions, including his stands on the death penalty and welfare reform.
Based on the issues, therefore, about 90 percent of blacks should vote for Clinton and other Democratic candidates. They should also join in an all-out effort to mobilize their community's vote.
Some blacks, however, reject this reasoning. In spite of gains in civil rights, politics, education, and the professions in the last 30 years, poverty among blacks remains alarmingly high - 32.7 percent in 1991 - and has not improved since the late '60s. Why should blacks bother to vote for either of the major parties since both have presided over these terrible conditions for so long?
But the reason why the federal government has not done more to increase employment and reduce poverty is that the Democratic Party has not had effective control of the government since the 1960s. Oil-driven inflation and the onrushing conservative shift that opened the way for Reagan-Bush prevented the Democratic coalition from moving forward on employment and poverty during the Carter administration in the late 1970s. The Democratic agenda has been thwarted again and again by hostile Republican administ rations, even when public opinion supported the Democratic position.
Black experience at the local level shows both how fruitful black leadership and participation can be and what its limitations are. Even in cities with modest black populations - 10 percent to 12 percent, as in the US as a whole - coalitions of blacks, whites, and other groups have developed broadly beneficial programs, opened city governments to fair representation and employment, and made city agencies more responsive to nonwhites. But the results of this historical opening are limited, primarily becau se cities are going broke in a federal system dominated by an unsympathetic administration in Washington.
THE black experience in city politics argues emphatically for a vigorous effort to get out the black vote for Clinton on two grounds: First, even where blacks form a relatively small minority, they can have great influence in biracial coalitions that win elections and produce results. Second, in order to sustain forward movement at any level, blacks must be major players in the party coalition that controls the presidency. And it is the genius of Clinton's programs that they help create that coalition by
addressing the economic needs of working people of all races - the people to whom Reagan and Bush paid so little attention.
Governmental responsiveness to the legitimate interests of blacks - and of whites who will join them in the quest for prosperity and fairness - requires effective control of that government. Blacks learned this through their experience with city governments. Effective control can be achieved at the national level by electing a Democratic president to work together with Democratic majorities in Congress. That achievement is possible if blacks and others who share Clinton's positions turn out to vote in No vember.