Race and the Republicans


George W. Bush insists that he is a compassionate conservative, a uniter not a divider. There's no question that he reached out to black Americans during his presidential campaign. Unlike Bob Dole in 1996, he delivered a speech to the NAACP, in which he apologized for the past sins of his party and even quoted W.E.B. Du Bois. At Bush's insistence, the GOP seemed to parade every willing minority it could find across its convention stage in Philadelphia. Ward Connerly, the controversial, life-long black Republican and anti-racial preference activist, wasn't even invited to the convention. Bush's outreach wasn't just style: He pushed at least one issue that disproportionately would benefit blacks and which polls show they support in far greater numbers than whites: education reform with a heavy school choice component.

Strange then, isn't it, that Bush's election-day payoff was a miserable 8 percent of the black vote, less than Bob Dole's anemic 12 percent in 1996?

What should Bush do now to reach out to black Americans? That was the topic du jour at a jam-packed symposium at the conservative Heritage Foundation here in D.C. on Tuesday. Six black Republicans had assembled to chew on the issue.

They didn't come up with much, certainly not much specifically geared toward African Americans. Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said Bush needs to expand school choice and cut taxes. Peter Kirsanow, who chairs the Center for New Black Leadership, the right-of-center black think that co-sponsored the event, proposed ending income tax withholding, since then blacks (and with them, all other Americans) would actually experience writing a check for the services they get from government. Welfare-recipient-turned- businesswoman-turned-talking head Star Parker questioned why the keys to success in America—in her version, "freedom and the grace of God"—need to be "color coded or racially profiled."

Everyone focused on policy and averted their eyes from the elephant in the middle of the room: What to make of the paradox that polls show blacks support a number of Republican policies yet vote Democratic in Soviet proportions?

"A lot of people miss the reason why blacks vote Democrat by a nine-to-one margin," says Sam Fulwood III, an African American who used to cover race and politics for the Los Angeles Times and is now a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It's not that they love Democrats, it's that they hate Republicans."

Republicans make the mistake of thinking they can attract blacks solely with pocketbook issues. What they don't understand—or perhaps don't want to understand—is that until relatively recently, the only issue that mattered to blacks was civil rights, since everything else flowed from it. "When blacks went to vote, they were voting their social and economic issues," says Fulwood. "It's just that their issues were different from white folks. From 1968 on, the only ones paying attention to them were the Democrats."

At least on a symbolic level, George W. Bush certainly did much to welcome blacks. But he did other things to repel them. In an attempt to reach out to conservatives, he spoke at Bob Jones University, which until recently prohibited interracial dating. He refused to denounce the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state capitol.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy turned millions of blacks into Democrats with one legendary call to the wife of an imprisoned Martin Luther King, Jr. (in the 1956 presidential election, Eisenhower had garnered a relatively robust 39 percent of the black vote to Adlai Stevenson's 61 percent; in 1960, Nixon got 32 percent to Kennedy's 68 percent; since then, no Republican presidential candidate has won more than 15 percent). Bush hurt himself by not reaching out publicly enough to the family of James Byrd, who was dragged behind a pickup truck in 1998. Bush claims that he called the Byrd family to offer condolences, and his staff has produced a record of a two-minute phone call to support the claim. But he didn't attend the funeral and Byrd family members, who are bitter over his lack of support for a specific hate-crime bill, deny ever talking to him on the phone.

No amount of policy talk can neutralize such racial blunders, which are hyped relentlessly by Democrats, not just on CNN and MSNBC but, more importantly, on black-oriented radio, television, Web sites, and viral e-mail messages. It's also the case that the negative effectively wipes out the positive. Hence, with Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft, it matters less that he signed the law making Martin Luther King, Jr. day an official state holiday as governor of Missouri, or that he supported the appointment of many black judges to the federal bench as a U.S. senator, or that his wife is on the faculty of the historically black Howard University. What sticks in the memory is his honorary degree from Bob Jones University, his kind words for Confederate leaders in Southern Partisan magazine, and his opposition to Judge Ronnie White's sitting on a federal court.

This isn't to say the GOP's disconnect with blacks is simply symbolic. Apart from rebel flags, speeches at Bob Jones University, and missed funerals, Republicans face many fundamental problems in converting blacks to their cause.

Many blacks are socially conservative, and many distrust government. So too do Republicans, but this doesn't make a happy marriage. Why? Because Republicans tend to distrust the federal government, and exalt local control. Blacks trust the federal government, which, after all, liberated them from slavery, enforced their civil rights during Reconstruction, hired them during the New Deal, and finally got around, in the 1950s and 1960s, to protecting their civil rights against their oppressors, many of whom resided in state and local governments.

This anti-government mismatch is playing out in the flap over the speech Bush's Secretary of the Interior nominee Gale Norton delivered to the Denver-based Independence Institute in 1996. In an otherwise standard Republican articulation of the majesty of the 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states and the people all the powers not granted to the federal government, Norton waxed nostalgic about a visit to a Civil War graveyard. "We certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery," said Norton. "But we lost too much. We lost the idea that states were to stand against the Federal government gaining too much power over our lives." This is a fundamental belief of the modern Republican Party. It's also a belief that is at odds with at least the leadership of virtually all mainstream black organizations, if not a majority of black Americans.

Similarly, the GOP's other core limited-government messages—messages that constitute its governing philosophy and messages that it can hardly abandon without eviscerating important segments of its base—sound racist to black ears. When Republicans attack crime, welfare, and bureaucratic bloat, many blacks hear echoes of earlier racially charged complaints, such as the elder Bush's invocation of Willie Horton, of Ronald Reagan's railing against urban welfare queens, and tales of lazy (black) public employees that date back to at least D.W. Griffith's infamous movie, Birth of a Nation (1915).

All this brings us back to the topic of the Heritage Foundation's symposium: What ought the Bush Administration do? One blunt assessment comes from Ward Connerly, the odd black man out in the Bush years. "An old country song advises one to 'know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,'" wrote Connerly in a post-election article in National Review. "With respect to Republicans who actively seek the black vote, my counsel is to 'fold 'em' because you don't have the cards. This doesn't mean the GOP should not want black support. It simply means that a different approach is required—one of benign neglect. Treat black voters the same way you treat white voters, or Asian voters." That, of course, was also the implicit message of the Heritage panel.

Yet Republicans have at least one reason to make public outreach efforts to blacks—such as Bush's visit to a school in an impoverished Houston neighborhood on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—even though they may be futile. The GOP has already shown it can win elections without black support. But it can't win elections if non-black Americans consider it to be intolerant. So it's moderate non-black voters for whom the multicultural shows must be staged.

Such realism—cynicism may be the better term—may serve the Republicans well over the next few years. But there is also something deeply unsettling about the fact that, at least for the forseeable future, one of the country's two major parties and the country's largest racial minority can find so little common ground.