Bush Must Meet Civil Rights Leaders

President Bush veers close to setting a dangerous precedent. He could well be the first president since Warren G. Harding not to meet with civil rights leaders. His twenty-minute speech to the Urban League convention hardly qualifies as fulfilling his much repeated promise to outreach to blacks. The Urban League is a moderate group that specializes in job and business training for blacks, not tough civil rights issues. Bush's MO on racial outreach has been to stage well-publicized photo-op sessions at black elementary schools, talk up the safe issues of education, increased HIV/AIDS funding, and aid to historically black colleges, and remind blacks that he appointed Condeleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Rod Paige to top policy making positions.

That he repeatedly snubs civil rights leaders is no surprise. They are nearly all rock solid Democrats. And they have waged relentless political warfare against him from the moment he set foot in the White House. They still pound him with allegations that the Republicans cheated blacks out of thousands of votes in Florida and hijacked the White House. They still fume at him for picking ultra-conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general, and are scared stiff that the first chance he gets he'll pick more Supreme Court justices such as Clarence Thomas.

Yet Bush makes a terrible mistake in treating the traditional civil rights leaders as soreheads because they attack him. For the past thirty years, they have fought hard battles in the courts and the streets for voting rights, affirmative action, school integration, an end to housing and job discrimination, and police abuse. They are the ones who accurately capture the mood of fear and hostility the majority of blacks feel toward Bush.

The dismal one out of ten black votes that he got was embarrassing proof of their hostility. That vote total was much lower than the number of black votes Republican Presidential candidates Robert Dole, and Bush Sr. got in their failed election and re-election bids. Post-election opinion polls show that little has changed. Blacks still don't believe that he'll convert the Republican Party from a chummy club of rich white guys into a party that promotes diversity. However, they do believe that he will lash them with more social pain.

Still, Bush must remember that he was elected to serve not just those who voted for him but all the people. He is duty bound to keep trying to reach out to those blacks who oppose him.

If he does, civil rights leaders must reach back to him. The reality is that Bush, not Clinton or Gore, is in the White House, and he could be there for another four years. If so, there are three crucial issues that scream for immediate attention and carry the least political risk for him.

There are the Minimum Mandatory Sentencing laws. According to the Sentencing Project, more than one million blacks are warehoused 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 Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno agreed. Congress didn't. Bush has at least expressed some concern over the drug law enforcement. Black leaders should push him to prod Congress to amend the drug sentencing laws.

While Bush made the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa his issue, the crisis also slams black communities here. Blacks make up more than half of all new AIDS cases in the country. This is a health danger that potentially affects all Americans. Black leaders must push Bush to radically increase funding for AIDS prevention, treatment, and education programs.

Then there's the issue of school vouchers. Bush has slightly backed away from them but has not dropped the issue. Vouchers would drain billions from cash strapped, failing public schools and doom those black students left behind to virtual educational extinction. Most Americans oppose vouchers. Black leaders should urge Bush to do the same.

By snubbing each other, Bush and black leaders run the fatal risk of repeating the racial freeze-out of the Reagan years. Black leaders and Reagan declared each persona non grata. This cost blacks dearly. Republican conservatives launched a withering assault on affirmative action, slashed and burned social and education programs, and pandered to the Party's most rabid, ultra-conservative elements. 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 Bush Sr. from the White House, and virtually enshrined Clinton as their savior.

Bush took a tiny step toward outreach to blacks when he spoke at the Urban League convention. Now he must take the next step and speak to civil rights leaders. Like it or not, they need each other.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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