WASHINGTON -- When Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate, one of the most negative reactions came from a Texas black man who brought into sharp focus the often strained relations between his race and Jews.
"We need to be very suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level, because we know their interest primarily has to do with money," said Lee Alcorn.
Alcorn's comment might have been dismissed as simple anti-Semitism, but the fact that he was president of the Dallas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America's most powerful black lobby group, guaranteed national exposure.
Alcorn was immediately suspended by the NAACP's national president, who then tried to mend fences. But the damage was done: the distrust of Jews felt by many blacks was out in the open.
Alcorn was not the only black leader to spout anti-Jewish venom. The Amsterdam News, a well-read New York black newspaper, carried a column arguing that Gore chose Lieberman in return for worldwide Jewish campaign contributions. And Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan questioned whether Lieberman would be "more faithful" to Washington or to Tel Aviv.
By the time Lieberman reached the Democratic convention in Los Angeles to claim his vice-presidential nomination, his voting record on affirmative action was under close scrutiny.
To quiet restive black delegates, Lieberman declared: "I supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action and I will support affirmative action." He also claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that there had been a "misunderstanding" about his past challenges to black-promotion programs. He wanted to "fix" them, he said, because they were creating quotas that degrade blacks.
Lieberman's quick response, together with we-love-Joe statements from the NAACP and prominent black figures such as Jesse Jackson, appear to have calmed the turbulent waters, to the relief of the Gore campaign.
But suspicion of Jews by blacks is never far below the surface, fostered by one minority's jealousy of another minority that, despite being one-quarter its size, moves more comfortably in political circles and wields more financial power. Lieberman's position - literally a heartbeat away from the presidency - feeds that envy.
Blacks probably hold the key to victory in the November election. If they follow tradition and vote en masse for Democratic candidates, Gore has a shot at the White House and his party at reducing, or even reversing, the Republican majority in the House. But if blacks stay home, succumbing to anti-Lieberman apathy, the Democrats are in trouble. Should the Jewish issue push blacks to vote against Democrats, the White House, the House and the Senate would likely all be Republican.
The latter scenario seems unlikely, even given George W. Bush's unusually strong bid for minority votes.
Once he entered the race, Bush moved quickly on the racial issue. He recruited America's most admired black, Colin Powell, as a keynote speaker at the Republican convention and floated his name as a potential secretary of state. Had Powell agreed to go on the ticket, Dubya would have grabbed him, but the former Army chief won't risk a run for elected office. Bush has also promoted Condoleezza Rice, his foreign-affairs advisor, a post she held for his father and for Ronald Reagan.
But both Powell and Rice have risen so high that few ordinary blacks can relate to them, a point Bush strategists apparently don't get.
Bush could probably exploit the tentative relationship between blacks and the Gore-Lieberman ticket, but if he does, he'll risk charges of racism - by both blacks and Jews.