Political Requiem For A Black Conservative

The torrent of praise from President Bush, Republican Congressional leaders, and political pundits for retiring Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts sharply contrasted with the deafening silence from black Democrats and civil rights leaders. This should hardly surprise. After his election from a predominantly white district in 1994, the former University of Oklahoma footballer immediately threw down the gauntlet to black Democrats. He proudly and defiantly declared that he would not join the Congressional Black Caucus.

In one of the keynote addresses at the Republican convention in 1996, Watts also threw down the gauntlet to the old-line civil rights leadership. He punched all the favorite conservative hot button items, championing family values and self-help, and hammering welfare and public housing.

Watts goaded black Democrats and civil rights leaders a year later when he branded them "race hustling, poverty pimps." It was a dirty low in mud slinging and the reaction was swift and harsh. A somewhat chagrined Watts and his Republican mentors rushed to do damage control and claimed that he was not talking about any one leader or point-of-view in particular. He was, and anyone even remotely familiar with the political battle between liberals and conservatives who bothered to think about his words knew who they were and what they represented, i.e., liberalism and blacks.

But Watts was not entirely skating on thin political ice in his attacks on traditional black leaders. He knew that a growing number of blacks publicly call themselves conservative, and many more blacks privately agree with some, most, or all of Watts’s political beliefs. He also knew that the old-line civil rights leadership was in crisis. They have been relentlessly battered and bruised during the 1980's and 1990's by conservative politicians and a lack of meaningful leadership. Much of the public has turned hard nosed against increased civil rights protections and more social programs. These leaders have felt the criticism and wrath of many blacks who are mortally disillusioned with two party politics.

Watts and the black conservatives believed that time and the abyss-like financial pockets of Republican conservatives were on their side; that more blacks would eventually rally to their banner and they could then step over the shattered pieces of the old black leadership to become the new black leaders. The problem Watts had is that while many blacks do brand traditional black leaders as the purveyors of "plantation politics" and call them sycophants of the Democrats, the majority of blacks are and will continue to be Democrats.

In every presidential election in the past three decades blacks have given the Democratic presidential nominee more than eighty percent of their vote.

They did the same for Gore in 2000. During that same time period, the Republican Party has systematically rejected blacks. While Bush made much about inclusion before and during the presidential campaign, the Florida vote debacle still leaves a strong odor in the nostrils of many blacks. They still accuse him of cheating blacks out of thousands of votes in Florida and hijacking the White House. Since then he has been stone silent on expanded hate crime laws and mandatory sentencing laws has opposed any discussion of reparations, and has renewed his call for school vouchers, which black Democrats and civil rights leaders universally condemn.

Then there’s Bush’s shabby treatment of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Though they are all solid Democrats, they have repeatedly asked for a meeting with him to try to work out some of the colossal differences between them.

And Bush has repeatedly put them off. This is a terrible mistake. Despite their past hostility toward him, 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. Many blacks regard them as their political voice, and they expect Bush to recognize and respect them also.

And though a number of blacks have reservations, if not outright doubts, about affirmative action, welfare, and other government social programs; they are not prepared to dump these programs. Watts and black conservatives are; but in the process they offer nothing better. Their politics and leadership are just as "plantation" as the black Democrats they gleefully lambaste.

That was apparent in how Republican leadership used Watts. He was a good mouthpiece for conservative causes and a visible symbol of their supposed commitment to racial inclusion. But how much real power did he really have within his own party? And that is the ultimate dilemma of Watts and black conservatives. They make useful symbols but not much else. Blacks will continue to reject their Republican pitch, and Republicans will continue to reject them as equal partners in power. Watts ultimately realized this, and he did the only thing that he could do, he left.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com

He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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