THERE are many things that stunned the political establishment about my recent meeting with Pat Buchanan to discuss his interest in the Reform Party nomination for president.
Mr. Buchanan is a right-winger; I come from the left. Mr. Buchanan has been criticized for being racist. I'm black. Mr. Buchanan is a lifelong Republican, a consummate political insider. I am the ultimate outsider, an African-American independent at odds with the black leadership's insistence that we stick to the Democrats for our political and economic survival.
In most respects, Mr. Buchanan and I are like oil and water -- chemical opposites that can never successfully mix. Yet in spite of those extreme differences, there is something that Mr. Buchanan might be able to help us do as the likely Reform Party nominee: Liberate black America.
Before you start screaming that I've lost my mind, let me assure you that I am aware that Mr. Buchanan is not Malcolm X. But as an independent, Mr. Buchanan could turn out to be the impetus for a major breakthrough in the empowerment of ordinary Americans by helping to bring the black working class and the white working class together again.
Mr. Buchanan and I both have a deep connection to working-class people. His anti-corporate populism -- his protests on behalf of blue-collar Americans who have lost jobs and economic security as a result of government policies that undercut America's manufacturing base -- has made him a popular figure within the white working class, nowadays known as Reagan Democrats.
Searching for a home
This blue-collar constituency has been more politically mobile than most, swinging between the Republicans and Democrats but aggrieved by both. The Reform Party may turn out to be just the ticket for them.
My political agenda for the past 20 years has been to give the black working-class community some new political tools -- independent tools like the Reform Party -- that enable it to break out of its poverty-stricken relationship with the Democratic Party.
Unlike blue-collar white America, black America has been immobile politically. Black America has remained loyally Democratic as that party has catered to an increasingly white suburban constituency, allying it with middle-class voters whose economic and social interests are often opposed to theirs.
During the Great Depression, black and white working people, beset by an unprecedented economic collapse, were joined together in a mass movement.
Segregation was still the law of the land. But in the 1930s heyday of industrial unionism, the color barrier was broken as black and white Americans joined together to resist the economic exploitation of factory owners and industry giants.
But the labor movement would undergo rapid changes as it forced its way into Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Democratic Party coalition. These unions (consolidated as the CIO -- which later joined with the more conservative and racist AFL) became less independent and less racially mixed. As industries such as steel, automotive, and defense grew, the jobs went to whites. Blacks remained underemployed, unorganized, and poor. The Unemployed Councils -- which had organized the lower strata of Americans, including many poor African-Americans -- were shut down, creating a further schism.
Later on blacks and other people of color would break into the service sector, precipitating a divide within the union movement itself. Today black and white working people have increasing interests in common, but we are politically alienated from each other. Race and the manipulations of racial antagonisms have certainly played their part. The race card remains a powerful card in American politics.
Nonetheless, there is more to connect us than divide us. Both need new coalition partners to advance their class interests. Neither can create such a coalition inside the Democratic and Republican parties.
And neither can have significant impact on governmental policy-making absent the kind of sweeping political reform that opens up the process and transfers the power to develop and enact economic policy from the hands of the special interests to ordinary Americans.
By leading a movement for political reform and self-governance, the Reform Party has the opportunity to bring working people of all races together. Insofar as Mr. Buchanan helps to propel this kind of populist alliance, black Americans will be better off for it.
Lenora B. Fulani twice ran for U.S. president as an independent. She is a leading activist in the Reform Party. She wrote this for the Boston Globe.
Pub Date: 10/12/99