Bush Not Standing United Behind Black Leaders

Congressional Black Caucus members must wonder just what it will take to convince President Bush that they also have rallied behind him. With the exception of Oakland Congressperson Barbara Lee, they voted for his war powers resolution, and backed much of his anti-terrorism and economic stimulus bills. Despite their support and mute silence, Bush has spurned their latest request for a meeting. It was their fourth request since September.

It's easy to figure out why he refuses to meet. The Caucus members are all solid Democrats. And before the September 11 terror massacre, they waged relentless political warfare against him for opposing reparations, and expanded hate crimes laws, and supporting school vouchers. They accused him of cheating blacks out of thousands of votes in Florida and hijacking the White House. They fumed at him for picking ultra-conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general. They railed that he would appoint more Supreme Court justices such as Clarence Thomas. They were petrified that he would torpedo civil rights and gut public education programs.

Despite their past hostility toward him, Bush makes a terrible mistake in treating black Democrat officials as pariahs. For the past thirty years, black officials have fought tough battles in the courts and Congress for voting rights, affirmative action, school integration, an end to housing and job discrimination, and police abuse. Though polls show that many blacks swept by patriotic zeal and anger over the September 11 have reversed gears and now think that he's doing a good job as president, this doesn't mean that they have forgotten or forgiven him for his past indifference and hostility to racial issues.

Blacks are still unconvinced that he'll make good his promise to remake the Republican party into a party of diversity. They privately grumble that once the crisis is past he will lash them with more social pain. If Bush were up for election today, the overwhelming majority of blacks would still vote for whatever Democrat opposes him.

Still, he would do well to remember his promise to reach out to friends and foe alike, and that includes nearly all black political leaders who vigorously opposed him. And when he does meet with them, and eventually he should, they will do well to remember that as long as most Americans fear more terrorist attacks, and believe that Bush is the man to stop them, he'll probably stay in the White House. If so, there are three problems that pose mounting peril to black communities in which black leaders may have some chance of getting Bush's attention.

- The HIV/AIDS crisis. On Worlds AIDS day, December 1, the Centers for disease control and prevention reported the appalling news that one in 50 African-American males and one in 160 African-American women are HIV infected. This is a health danger that ravishes many blacks and potentially affects all Americans. Black leaders must push Bush to radically increase funding for AIDS prevention, treatment, and education programs.

- Minimum Mandatory Sentencing Law. A recent Department of Justice report on prisoner growth counts more than one million blacks locked-up in America's jails. Many are there because of the deeply flawed, racially warped drug sentencing laws that mandate long stretches for mostly black and Latino petty drug offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission twice recommended that these laws be modified. Former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno agreed. Congress didn't. Before September 11, Bush expressed some concern over the disparities in drug law enforcement. Black leaders should push him to prod Congress to amend the drug sentencing laws.

- Racial profiling. Bush and Ashcroft have repeatedly warned against profiling American Muslims and Arab-Americans, and have demanded indictments, and prosecutions against those who commit hate crimes against them. Black leaders must prod him to keep his pre-September 11 pledge to urge Congress and the Justice Department to do everything possible to eliminate racial profiling.

By continuing to snub the Congressional Black Caucus, Bush risks perpetuating the racial deep freeze of the Reagan years. In those days, black Democrats and civil rights leaders were persona non grata at the White House, and the doors were slammed shut on them. This cost Republicans dearly. It cemented the belief among blacks and minorities that the Republican Party is an insular, bigoted party hostile to their interests. They flocked to the Democrats in droves, helped boot George Bush Sr. from the White House, despite his sky-high public approval rating following the Gulf War in 1991, and virtually deified Clinton as their savior.

There is little chance that Bush will ever be seen as their savior. But black leaders have largely heeded his call to stand united behind him in this time of crisis. Now he must do the same with them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press). Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com.

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