What black voters want from all the presidential candidates is what Aretha Franklin made famous in song so many years ago: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Keep that in mind, candidates, as you trip over yourselves to woo competing groups of black religious leaders as a shortcut to convincing black Americans that a vote for you is a ticket to the Promised Land. Know, too, that this is 2015, not 1915 when an invitation extended to a prominent black person to visit the White House or Capitol Hill was major news in the black press and cause for endorsing candidates on the basis of who held out the welcome mat.
Moreover, while on a per capita basis blacks are perhaps more likely than others to be tied to a faith community, there are a whole lot of folks who are what might be called "unchurched," and so candidates must cast a much wider net than circles of preachers.
Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, stumbled when his publicity machine hyped a scheduled meeting with "an amazing" group of black evangelicals two weeks ago. Organized by a Cleveland minister who calls Mr. Trump "my guy," it turned into something of a public relations fiasco when some invitees declined and those who came not only did not endorse him, but could not even agree on what they had talked about for two hours in later interviews on CNN and TV One. Mr. Trump emerged from the New York gathering talking about "love" ("There was great love in the room."); and the meeting organizer, the Rev. Darrell Scott of Cleveland, pronounced, "We made history today because we had meaningful dialogue with Donald Trump."
But Mr. Trump looked like the master manipulator that he is and used the confusion to take gratuitous potshots at the Black Lives Matter movement, accusing its members of having intimidated ministers who had been set to endorse him. I am not surprised by Donald Trump, but I am disappointed that many of those ministers came across as star-struck sycophants, eager to join a bandwagon that, according to a new Monmouth University poll, includes 41 percent of Republicans or independents leaning toward the GOP.
For sure there was some jockeying for best camera position with another candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he visited Baltimore last week in a meeting organized by the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple. But his roundtable discussion with about 20 religious and civic leaders was more substantive, covering criminal justice, educational and economic issues. More importantly here, Mr. Sanders did not have to step out of character to connect his agenda with theirs. "It is the wealthiest country in the history of the world," he says of the United States. "We can create a society in which all of our people have a decent standard of living — not a society in which almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent." As he does elsewhere, he talked income inequality, education and justice.
Mr. Sanders sat down with the religious group after having walked through a portion of Sandtown — with a media mob in tow — and offering comments in front of one of the many murals that artists rushed to create in the wake of Freddie Gray's death and the unrest that ensued last spring.
I cringe at the thought that mural-filled corners of Sandtown, like Presbury and North Mount where Gray was arrested, will become convenient backdrops for candidates wooing urban voters of color the way New York's erstwhile version of Sandtown — the South Bronx — became de rigueur for a time. Starting in the 1970s, presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) and candidates (Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson) dutifully trooped to the South Bronx, media mob in tow, for their closeups.
But I guess the Rev. Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church has a point: The attention national figures bring to an area like Sandtown may be more fruitful in this era of accountability fueled by social-media magnification than might have been the case in the days of occasional coverage by three major television networks.
As the election season kicks into higher gear and black voters become even more valuable, there will be other meetings with ministers, civic leaders, entrepreneurs, educators. All good. But shame on any candidates who think they can obtain black votes in exchange for only photo ops and the chance for a select few to boast about "my guy" (or gal). Shame on black folks if we can be bought for so little.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: email@example.com.