The Magazine

Bush's Race Opportunity

He shouldn't let his lack of success (so far) with black voters deter him

Feb 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 20 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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IT'S HARD TO REMEMBER A TIME in recent decades when blacks as a group seemed angrier about politics. Despite the Republican party's unprecedented efforts to appeal to them in the recent campaign, a full 50 percent of black voters think George W. Bush "stole" the election (in contrast to 26 percent of whites). His attorney general designate John Ashcroft, a politician five times elected statewide in Missouri, has been turned into a symbol of implacable racism. Even the Bush cabinet, the most racially mixed in history, has failed to find approval from blacks: Only 22 percent say they are pleased by the president's appointments. And the civil rights establishment has all but declared war on the new administration: Not just the Rev. Al Sharpton but many members of the Congressional Black Caucus spearheaded protests on Inauguration Day.

What is the Bush administration to do in the face of this disaffection? California regent Ward Connerly and others have urged a period of "benign neglect" of race issues. Nothing the Bush team does, after all, is likely to satisfy the irrepressible Jesse Jackson or NAACP president Kweisi Mfume; nor is any short-term measure likely to win over rank-and-file black voters, 90 percent of whom rejected Bush. But, understandable as it would be for the president simply to turn his back, the truth is that Bush's approach to race is too interesting and important to be put on the shelf, however unappreciated it may be in these earliest days of his administration.

The president's campaign rhetoric and inaugural address, his record in Texas, and the way he has assembled his government all suggest a refreshing idea of America and how it ought to hold together. It is a vision based on outreach and inclusion: No other Republican in memory has tried so hard to win black or Latino votes. It is a vision that stresses individual responsibility: witness Bush's emphasis on education and his denunciation of "the soft bigotry of low expectations," the most resonant phrase of his campaign.

But for all Bush's concern about minorities, his is also a vision that resists the color-coding Americans now take for granted in public life. Just listen to Bush on the day he announced the appointments of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales: Never once mentioning their race or ethnicity, the president said he wanted to send a message that "people who work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America."

This inclusive but race-neutral vision is a welcome departure from the largely Democratic race-consciousness the nation has pursued for nearly four decades -- and also from traditional Republican neglect. It is a vision full of possibility. The challenge Bush faces is to make it real.

The president seems to know that results are what's important, and he is off to a good start, moving to fulfill his campaign pledges on education. There is no more direct route to inclusion than making school effective for every child. And minorities know this: According to one recent California survey, education is twice as important to blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans as their next priority, crime, and about five times as important as the economy.

School choice is overwhelmingly popular with black parents, but the president's strategy need not hinge on vouchers, which are only one means to the end of educating every child. Far more important is narrowing the minority performance gap. Bush is already seeking to prod school districts not just to try but actually succeed in teaching basic skills to all students. A next step might be incentives to insure that all teenagers finish high school -- a particularly elusive goal in the Latino community, where the dropout rate approaches 40 percent. And the president could encourage corporate chiefs to get more involved in what happens after high school, helping all students make the best choice at that point.

Bush's instincts are sound: So far he has avoided talking about any of these initiatives in racial terms. In due time, with presidential awards, school visits, and other political theater, he can show plainly enough the range of children who are benefiting from his education policies.

A second vast realm where the president can press ahead is the economy, helping people help themselves to move up the ladder. Here, he can begin with further encouragement -- and support services where necessary -- for people in transition from welfare to work. Another goal, already spotlighted by Housing and Urban Development secretary Melquiades Martinez, is spurring home ownership in poor neighborhoods; after many mistakes, the federal government is slowly learning how to do this. Still another is promoting small-business growth.