The Issue is Bush, Not Lott
The issue is not Senate Majority leader designate Trent Lott's roll-back-the-racial-clock tout of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond. That Lott would blunder so badly is no real surprise. He is an unreconstructed Deep South politician who has bludgeoned every piece of legislation that remotely upholds civil right protections in the Senate, and has cozied up to the borderline white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.
The issue is President Bush. His "damn with faint praise" handslap of Lott has satisfied no one, including many Republicans who have said that they are anxiously watching for a sign from the White House that Bush will cut Lott's bait. But even if Bush does speak out and vigorously condemn Lott, or go further and call for him to resign his Senate post, the damage has been done. Bush's silence made a pitiful mockery of his public vow during the presidential campaign, and occasionally after his election, to remake the Republican Party into a party of diversity. Decades of Republican indifference, neglect, and flat out racial hostility to black voters had cemented their belief that the Republican Party is an insular, bigoted party hostile to their interests.
But before Lott's outburst, Bush had softened that image. His appointment of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Rod Paige to high-ranking administration posts was a step toward extending the olive branch of racial friendship to blacks. Then, following the September 11 terror attacks, with the exception of Oakland Congressperson Barbara Lee, the Congressional Black Caucus, which waged relentless political warfare against him for opposing reparations, expanded hate crimes laws, and supporting school vouchers, voted for his war powers resolution, and backed much of his anti-terrorism and economic stimulus bills. A poll this year by Black America's Political Action Committee, a Washington D.C. based, conservative-leaning political action group, found that many blacks had reversed gears and said they thought that Bush was doing a good job as president.
Bush then did another savvy thing to rope more blacks into the Republican Party. He bypassed black Democrats and civil rights leaders and made his pitch directly to black community and religious leaders. He scurried to a score of black churches touting his and the Republican Party's pet themes of faith based charities, welfare reform, school vouchers, and minority business and homeownership. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal Washington D.C. think tank, found the number of blacks who identify themselves as Democrats plunged in 2002 from two years before. This was yet another sign that more blacks than ever were disillusioned with the "plantation politics" approach of the Democrats to black voters whereby Democrats demand their vote, but do little in return for it. The only real reason that blacks vote knee-jerk for the Democrats is not because of any inherent belief that they offer everything for them, but because they feel that the Republicans offer nothing for them.
Bush's strategy of actively courting blacks also exploded the colossal myth that blacks are reflexively liberal Democrats who will always answer to the beck and call of civil rights leaders. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sent the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction to Congress.
Though Thurmond and the Southern Democrats chopped it to pieces, Republicans got credit for the weak version that finally passed. The same year, Eisenhower grabbed forty percent of the black vote to win reelection. In 1960, Richard Nixon also received a sizable percentage of the black vote against John Kennedy.
The Democrats got the black vote back in 1964 in part because Lyndon Johnson made good on his civil rights pledge and partly because blacks feared that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's platform of states rights sent a horrible message that they were not wanted in the party. Blacks got the same negative signal from Nixon in 1968. And later, Colin Powell criticized his former bosses Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. for not showing more sensitivity on racial matters.
In his first two years in the White House, Bush had a once in a lifetime chance to thaw the racial deep freeze of the Reagan and Bush Sr. years, snatch the political and ideological blinders from the eyes of Republican leaders, and change the perception that the Republican Party is nothing more than a cozy, good ole white guys club. His refusal to pounce hard on the Lott debacle is yet another ominous hint that nothing has really changed.
Now, no matter how many black churches Bush turns up at to pitch the Republican line, and no matter how often he promises to make the party more inclusive, blacks almost certainly again will dutifully pull the Democratic lever in 2004.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. His latest book is "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).