The Magazine

Race and the Republicans

There is nothing inevitable about black Americans' overwhelming support of Democrats. It just seems that way

Apr 30, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 31 • By ERIC COHEN
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Last February, a few days after a man from Indiana had fired several shots at the White House, I found myself driving a group of black fourth and fifth graders to the U.S. Capitol for a private tour. George W. Bush had just been inaugurated, so I asked the kids what they thought about their new president.

"When I heard about the shooting I was pretty happy," said one of the boys with a laugh. "I thought Bush might have got shot." Other comments were just as bitter, though the kids were too young really to know what they were saying:

"President Bush is going to put us all back in slavery."

"He's going to round up all the black people and kill them."

The kids were part of a reading and art program at a housing project in Northeast Washington, D.C. -- a part of town long known to residents and local reporters as "Little Beirut." They were, for the most part, nice kids -- affectionate and brash, used to hardship at home and mayhem on the streets, with little real experience of the "white" world that lies outside their all-black neighborhood.

President Bush spoke of these separate worlds in his inaugural address: "While many of our citizens prosper," he said, "others doubt the promise -- even the justice -- of our own country. . . . And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country." Bush's commitment to "healing" the racial divide is by now beyond question. But so is the fear and loathing of Republicans among most blacks, young and old, rich and poor, religious and secular.

To be sure, Democrats and the civil rights establishment have had their own problems of late: Jesse Jackson's personal and financial scandals; Sen. Robert Byrd's use of the term "white nigger"; the bloodfight between Terry McAuliffe (the white choice) and Maynard Jackson (the black choice) for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, followed by McAuliffe's use of the term "colored people" in one of his speeches; and, most significantly, the quandary over President Bush's faith-based initiative, which threatens to drive a wedge between the black civil rights establishment (allied as it is with the secular Left) and the black churches and church leaders with whom Bush hopes to work.

But none of these contretemps has changed anything politically. There has been virtually no backlash against Democrats for their insensitivities; even Democratic mayor Charlie Luken of riot-torn Cincinnati seems to be getting a political pass -- by contrast with, say, mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York after the Amadou Diallo shooting -- while the Cincinnati police force comes under heavy fire from black leaders for the fatal shooting of a black suspect.

It is far too early to tell whether President Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda -- his vigorous support for black churches, his talk of reforming inner-city schools, his deliberate sensitivity to issues like racial profiling, and (though he would never openly admit it) his race-conscious appointments to the highest posts in his administration -- will break this political stalemate in the long run, defusing black animosity towards Republicans and even garnering black support. Four months does not a realignment make; the record in Texas, however, is not encouraging. After six years as governor, Bush won a paltry 5 percent of Texas blacks in the presidential race. Despite all of Bush's efforts at "inclusion," the dominant symbol of his young presidency for most blacks remains John Ashcroft, whose interview with Southern Partisan magazine and appearance at Bob Jones University were easily exploited by Democrats to reinforce many blacks in the belief that Republicans are the moral equivalents of slaveholders.

Undaunted, Bush and his compassionate conservatives are determined to win the confidence of black Americans. They insist that religious, socially conservative blacks living in overtaxed cities are a natural Republican constituency. They believe that decades of liberal failure, especially in the public schools, make it possible to break black voters' near unanimous loyalty to the Democratic party. This is no mere political gambit, as civil rights leaders smugly claim; it is not the inverse of Nixon's "Southern Strategy." It reflects, rather, two decades of reflection on how to make Republicans the party of urban renewal, and it springs from the conviction that core conservative principles can address the problems of the black community -- while decades of liberal policies and grievance politics have only made them worse.