Black and Bush

While most Blacks regarded President George W. Bush with skepticism as a presidential candidate in 2000, as the U.S. prepares to launch a military strike on Afghanistan, African American leaders, like most Americans, have rallied to support the commander-in-chief.

In the 2000 election, Bush's rival, Al Gore, won 90 percent of the Black vote to Bush's 8 percent, and Black suspicion of Bush only grew after reports of voter irregularities and allegations of Black voter disenfranchisement in Florida. In the opening months of his presidency Bush tried to counter widespread African American mistrust by making minority political appointments and backing policies most African Americans support, such as educational reform. But these overtures did little to win over most Blacks.

And when the Bush administration decided to pull out of the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August, the move solidified the suspicion among Black leaders that Bush was not serious about issues of concern to African Americans.

"Black leadership was geared up to make a stand against Bush after the UN conference on race," said Dr. Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University and the author of "We Have No Leaders," which discusses Black leadership in the U.S.

But all that changed as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the wake of the deaths of more than 6,000 people, and at a time of fear and insecurity, Black political leadership has been largely supportive of President Bush.

Following the President's national address two weeks ago, a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll reported that 90 percent of Americans approved of President Bush, the highest presidential job approval rating ever measured by Gallup. While specific statistical Black support for President Bush and his performance is not known, Black leaders have expressed their support for Bush or have muted their previous criticism of him. Within Congress, only U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) voted against granting President Bush the authority to strike back at the alleged perpetrators of the terrorist attack.

"I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States," said Lee from the House floor. "This resolution will pass, although we all know that the President can wage a war even without it."

But Lee's colleagues, Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), all of whom normally vote with her on defense and military issues, disagreed with Lee's position and chose to support the President.

"Black leadership has been with Bush, because this was an attack on us [America]," explains Smith. "First of all, there were a lot of Blacks killed in the terrorist attacks. Many also feel that the persons involved in the attacks have to be punished for this."

The unified, and unifying, sense of outrage has led Congressional leaders who are usually the President's fiercest critics to speak favorably on his resolute handling of the crisis.

"The President has done an adequate job in terms of leadership," said Millender-McDonald, adding she would give Bush a "75 to 85 percent" approval rating for his handling of the crisis. She said his sternness in the face of adversity has calmed the nation, and she praised the way in which he has stressed the theme of national togetherness.

In a similar reversal, Black civic and religious leaders have also expressed support and encouragement for Bush. At the NAACP convention in July, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, was highly critical of the Bush administration, saying that Bush's top judicial nominees hailed from the "Taliban wing" of the Republican Party, whose "devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection."

But since Sept. 11, Bond has changed his tune.

"We praise President George W. Bush for his visit to Washington's Islamic Center and his forthright stand against hate crimes and racial and ethnic profiling," Bond said.

Even Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, known for his relentless criticism of U.S. government and American foreign policy, struck a supportive note in his remarks on the attacks and the Bush administration's response. Speaking at a Sept. 16 press conference at Mosque Maryam in Chicago, Minister Farrakhan noted that an America once sorely divided after the 2000 election had been united by the unprecedented tragedy.

"The Congress has been deeply divided, and no amount of political skill or political money could unite America behind its President, but tragedy did," said Minister Farrakhan, who spoke while flanked by American flags. "No amount of political skill could unite the Democrats and the Republicans, but tragedy did. No amount of preaching by all of us who preach could make the many diverse elements of society come together as brothers and sisters in a unified expression, but tragedy did."

And while the NOI rhetoric has not historically embraced a sense of American patriotism, Farrakhan seemed proud to claim and defend his U.S. citizenship and heritage. "I was born in this country in New York City," he said. "And though the pain that Black people have suffered in America has caused me to be angry with the country of my birth, however, in my maturation, I know that with all of America's problems, she's the greatest nation on this earth. And in spite of America's problems, America has the potential to become the greatest nation ever."

Farrakhan said he supports President Bush's effort to bring to justice the individuals or governments responsible for the attacks. "We stand with President Bush, the government and the people of the U.S. in their desire to hunt down those responsible for this heinous crime against humanity," he said.

Similarly, immediately after the attacks, the Rev. Jesse Jackson quieted his criticism of Bush, although he noted that the terrorist attacks were a sign that "there is a body of people alienated from our country," and that America's "tendency toward isolation makes us more vulnerable to acts of hostility."

Since then, after leading prayer vigils and laying low for weeks, Jackson briefly flirted with a possible visit to Afghanistan after receiving an invitation from the Taliban.

The diverse opinions about a potential Jackson intervention highlight the possibility that Black leadership will not continue its unanimous support of the President forever. In the wake of Rep. Lee's stand, other criticism has been seen -- but it has been mostly silent. Political analysts like Smith believe that most Black leaders and citizens will remain behind Bush as long as he is focused on apprehending and punishing the perpetrators of the terrorist acts.

"Bush has a free hand to retaliate any way he wants to, in regards to bin Laden and Afghanistan," said Smith. But, he added, this could change if such retaliation develops into extended military action in other regions of the Middle East. "If he goes beyond that, in terms of attacking Syria or Iraq, then I think you will see some objections from Black leadership," added Smith.

Lee Hubbard can be reached by e-mail at superle@hotmail.com.

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