Why Blacks Aren't Following Powell Into Republican Fold
Even black GOP members agree it will be tough to restore image as party of Lincoln
PALO ALTO, CALIF. — STANDING under the leafy eucalyptus trees and the burnt-ochre tiled roofs of Stanford University here, Jackie Bridgeman is a typical student of this elite university. The daughter of a conservative Denver financial planner, she plans to graduate this year and head to law school.
By these attributes, Ms. Bridgeman, who is African-American, would seem an ideal candidate to follow Gen. Colin Powell into the Republican Party, to heed his call to restore the GOP as the ''party of Lincoln.'' But she has just registered as a Democrat.
''I would have voted for Powell,'' she says. ''But his choosing to be part of the party doesn't mean the party has changed. I'm not going to blindly follow him into the Republican Party.''
A Powell candidacy would have been a historic chance for the Republican Party to break the Democratic lock on the black vote for the first time since the 1930s. But black voters, experts who analyze their votes, and black Republican activists share the conclusion that while most blacks were prepared to vote for Colin Powell for president under any label, they are not ready to embrace his chosen party.
The growing black middle class shares many of the values espoused by the Republican Party - from tax relief to religious conservatism. But even black Republicans agree that the party can't shake its negative image among blacks.
''People feel this is a racist party,'' says Paulette Fraser-Matthews, chairwoman of the Black Republican Council of California and an aide to Gov. Pete Wilson. ''Blacks feel the rhetoric that comes from some of the ex-extremists in the party is too negative, and Colin Powell can't silence those extremists.''
But that is not to say that the Republican Party has completely failed to gain black recruits. Roxanne Petteway is representative of a small but growing movement of black Republicans who heartily embrace the Republican's conservative agenda. She joined the party in 1988 largely because she supports anti-abortion and says the government should get out of the business of providing social welfare. ''Anything government touches, it ruins,'' says the Los Angeles-based party activist.
Republican support among African-Americans has also grown as they have moved into the middle- and upper-income levels of American society. Entrepreneur Ted Smith, who owns a successful janitorial service firm in Richmond, Calif., strongly endorses the ''self-help'' philosophy of the Republican Party. He sees ''free enterprise,'' not dependence on government support, as the best route to improving the black community.
African-Americans, in fact, may be more open to the Republican Party today than at any time in decades. There is a widespread frustration with the Democratic Party, a feeling that it takes black votes for granted. And blacks are potentially receptive to the Republican Party's social conservatism.
''The most conservative group in America today is the African-American community,'' says Hanes Walton Jr., University of Michigan political scientist. On abortion, homosexuality, and family values, blacks are ''to the right of whites.''
But the large majority of blacks are not ready to relinquish the party they have turned to for upward of three decades. Through the last presidential election, blacks have given 80 to 90 percent of their vote to Democratic candidates. Even black successes, many argue, rest on the foundation of Democrat-sponsored policies to ensure civil rights and equal opportunity.
''Mr. Powell has been talking about great, lofty things - affirmative action, justice - and then he concluded, 'I will join the Republican revolution to undercut the social safety net that made me possible,' '' the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached to a rally of students this month at Stanford in support of affirmative action. ''We can admire [Powell], but we cannot follow a direction against our own interests.''
That argument rang true to rally attendee James Plummer, one of a handful of African-Americans in the graduate physics department at Stanford. The prospect of a career in a field previously uninhabited by blacks does not diminish his concerns about racism. African-Americans, he argues, need to ''understand a very simple concept that the Jewish population has taught the world over and over again - that it doesn't matter about the pocket book, it doesn't matter how many Freuds or Bernsteins you produce, when the hammer of white supremacy falls, you are going to be under it, just like in Germany.''
Rising incomes among blacks aren't enough to move large numbers to the Republican camp either, says Michael Preston, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. He sees only a ''small fraction'' of well-to-do African-Americans who are ready to vote their economic interests above other issues.
Indeed, businessman Mr. Smith expresses warring tugs on his beliefs. Like General Powell, he is ''for affirmative action, because I've benefited from it.'' Smith is concerned about crime, but wary of putting punishment ahead of prevention. ''There are a lot of underlying reasons for crime,'' he says.
History suggests that black voters have shifted their party loyalties largely on the basis of the overriding issue of race and civil rights. As Powell alluded in his statement bowing out of the presidential race, the Republican Party was for a long time revered by black Americans for championing their emancipation from slavery. The Democrats, on the contrary, were the party of Southern reaction, the architects of the Jim Crow laws that denied most blacks the right to vote until the civil rights movement won it back.
According to history
Franklin Roosevelt's transformation of the Democratic Party into an alliance of trade unionists, liberal intellectuals, minorities, and Southern whites during the Great Depression gradually won blacks over from their traditional Republicanism. Even when Republican President Dwight Eisenhower regained 40 percent of the black vote for his second term, it was mostly based on his decision to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., in support of school desegregation.
''The problem has been that since the Nixon strategy of opening up the South and drawing in white voters, the GOP has been subtly appealing to race,'' Preston says. ''Why give this up to draw black voters? There is no strategy to draw black voters. They could get 25 percent of the vote if they had a strategy.''
Under these circumstances, Powell's declaration of his Republicanism may have little impact, worries Charles House, a black Republican. ''He won't be listened to that much now,'' he says. ''If he had won the nomination, he would have done a lot to bring blacks back to the Republican Party. He can't now.''