Two nations, once again

Black and white America are worlds apart in the way they view President-elect Bush, and how he came to power.

Published December 16, 2000 10:12AM (EST)

Another televised American soap opera, and another example of how blacks and whites view the same events differently. While the chasm this time is not as deep or disturbing as it was in the wake of the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict, it's clear the two distinct Americas are in no danger of agreeing any time soon about what happened in Florida on Election Day, or since.

Days after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end the election contest in Florida and award the presidency to George W. Bush, 84 percent of African-Americans say their confidence in the voting process has been shaken, according to a poll conducted by Reuters and NBC News. That's nearly double the national average. Eighty-four percent of blacks thought Gore would have won Florida if the votes were fairly counted. Just 2 percent of blacks polled "strongly agree" the right man became president, compared with 50 percent of white Americans.

Despite the emphasis from politicians on both sides of the aisle -- though most of them are white -- for reconciliation and unity in the wake of the controversial election, there remains a seething discontent among black voters that's not mirrored by most whites, even white Democrats.

"I don't understand why whites don't feel this anger," says Adora Obi Nweze, president of Florida's NAACP. "I want so much for everybody to feel at least some of what we feel."

"There is a radical difference between the white and black perception of the election," adds David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that studies issues related to blacks and other minorities. "For blacks it's anger vs. frustration. Frustration connotes a sense of neutrality. Black voters think the election was stolen. By Jeb Bush, by George W. Bush, by the Supreme Court. This is not going to be forgotten."

As a voting bloc, blacks were among Vice President Al Gore's most loyal supporters, but analysts and observers within the African-American community insist the election anger runs deeper than partisan frustration over a tough loss at the polls. Instead, its roots are both historical and cultural.

"Voting rights has been such a major element of black life, and black political life, for the last 20 to 40 years," explains Bositis. "It's a very real issue. It's based on experience. The mainstream community has never had their voting rights stolen for hundreds of years."

For instance, it's doubtful many whites had a visceral reaction to hearing Bush's attorney argue that the "equal protection clause" under the 14th Amendment required that the vote count in Florida be stopped. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights struggle and a former aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., did have that reaction. "It was painful," he says.

Painful, because the 14th Amendment was ratified after the Civil War in an effort to squash discriminatory laws by Southern states known as "black codes," and to grant full and equal protection to blacks. Additionally, the clause has been used by minorities throughout the last century to make sure that that protection -- one person, one vote -- was not infringed upon.

Instead, the five conservative, Republican-appointed justices of the U.S. Supreme Court embraced the novel notion that locally appointed election officials inspecting disputed ballots without adopting a uniform standard was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The fact that African-Americans cast so many of those disputed ballots, and that antiquated punch-card voting systems in urban areas throughout Florida discarded an extraordinary number of ballots in black districts, simply added insult to injury.

"It's just one more irony, one more wrinkle, in this whole story," says Nweze. "For me, I'm almost numb."

There's also deep resentment targeted towards the Supreme Court, once seen by blacks as an important institutional ally. "For many of us 25 and 30 years ago, we looked to the Supreme Court as a sympathetic referee in our struggle for voting rights," says Lewis. "We placed a lot of hope and confidence that the Supreme Court would do the right thing."

Even though Chief Justice William Rehnquist's court has shown hostility towards minority plaintiffs, who when bringing equal protection cases before the Court have had to show both irreparable harm and discriminatory purpose, something Bush was never asked to prove, that precedent did not seem to prepare many blacks for the court's jarring Bush vs. Gore ruling. Eighty-nine percent of blacks now think the Supreme Court ruled in favor of politics instead of the good of the country, according to the Reuters/NBC News poll, compared to 43 percent of all Americans polled.

No doubt black Floridians are angry because they marshaled the largest voter turnout in the state's history. Upset with Jeb Bush's move to curtail affirmative action, blacks, who represent 13.4 percent of Florida voters, actually cast 15 percent of all ballots on Election Day. That means 350,000 more blacks voted in Florida than in 1996. An astonishing 93 percent of black Floridians supported Gore.

The resentment over what happened in Florida during the election, says Lewis, is being felt by blacks nationwide. "A lot of African-Americans have Southern backgrounds, either aunts and uncles or grandparents who came up from the South. There's a national connection. There's now a feeling that something happened to our brothers and sisters and Florida, something happened in Jacksonville, in Tallahassee, in West Palm Beach, and we don't like it. You hear the same thing from African-Americans all over this country: This must not happen again."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------