Black History and J.C. Watts

This is Black History Month, and it may be remembered as the one in which the GOP picked second-term Rep. J.C. Watts, an African American, to respond to the president's State of the Union message. The Baptist pastor and former football star from Oklahoma is the party's only member of Congress who is black. His claim to history will be strengthened if he demonstrates what he has said, that he "didn't come to Congress to be a black leader or a white leader but a leader."

It seems Mr. Watts wouldn't mind being a Republican leader, though, having switched from the other party before he ran for a state office in 1990. He's a warning to the bloc-minded - bloc-headed? - that lumping people by skin color is politically risky. Diversity must be recognized within minorities as well as in the larger society. Shared interests - political, social, economic - are what bring constituencies together.

Representative Watts has expressed his interests in terms of a Republicanism in which compassion means not government programs but neighbors helping neighbors, "countless unsung heroes," as he described them at last August's GOP convention. "We define compassion by how few people are on welfare ... because we have given them the means to climb the ladder of success."

How to give those means most effectively is a question as urgent as any other likely to be raised in the State of the Union address. We look forward to Mr. Watts contributing to cooperative solutions rather than partisan strife when he replies to the president.

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