Ties binding Democrats and blacks loosen

With the rise of African-American middle class, some voters are drifting to the right.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Timothy Andrews's political memories are distinctly Democratic.

He recalls sitting in front of the TV on election night in 1980 and 1984, watching the returns roll in. There were Carter and Mondale signs planted firmly in the family's front lawn, and there was no question about where his parents' allegiance were - in any contest. Whoever represented the party of President Johnson, who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, got their votes.

Now in his 30s, the African-American graphic designer makes an almost heretical admission: Back in the 1980s, he was fascinated by Ronald Reagan, and today, he'd consider voting for a Republican.

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While Mr. Andrews appreciates what the Democrats have done for blacks, he doesn't feel a keen sense of loyalty to them. His ambivalence typifies how young African-Americans are increasingly at odds with the party of their parents and grandparents.

As the black middle class swells, more professionals like Andrews are calling themselves independents - not tied to the Democratic doctrine, but still wary of the GOP as the party of "rich, white men." This fall's election, analysts say, could be an indicator of whether the Republicans can begin to erode one of the strongest political alliances of the past half century.

"There is a generational shift," says David Bosits, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "African-Americans under 35 tend to be more independent.... They have no collective memory of Martin Luther King, segregation, or the fight for the Civil Rights Act. They live in a completely new world from their parents."

According to one of the center's polls, more than 90 percent of African-Americans who are baby boomers or older vote Democratic. Only 60 percent of African-Americans under 35 consider themselves Democrats.

Changing needs

For Andrews, it's a simple question of who represents his interests. "The Democrats still rely on the past to get the black vote," he says. "I don't think at times they really understand the problems facing us now. We make more money and we have different needs, like a flat tax."

In addition to issues like the flat tax - considered conservative even by Republican standards - many African-American parents are beginning to examine school vouchers as a way to give their kids a satisfactory education.

These sociological and demographic transformations fit perfectly with a Republican platform, yet many blacks remain reluctant to support the GOP because of its lily-white image.

It hasn't always been that way. During the late 1800s, African-Americans strongly supported President Lincoln's Republican Party after the Emancipation Proclamation. But the tide began to turn with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the '30s.

As late as the 1950s, the GOP held 25 percent of African-American support with the liberal-to-moderate Rockefeller wing of the party. But in 1964, support quickly eroded when GOP leader Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act.

Recent strides

Recently, Alan Keyes's presidential bid has helped break stereotypes. So has GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush's emphasis on inclusiveness. This week, Mr. Bush plans to address the Congress for Racial Equality in New York.

But GOP leaders are finding that more is necessary to woo African-Americans. For example, Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bush, said Sunday that the Republican Party has failed to adequately represent blacks.

Rod Martin is trying to change that. Mr. Martin, the national chairman of The Vanguard, an organization promoting conservative solutions to issues, recently stood in front of 80 black teens, discussing social issues.

"To get these voters now, we have to tell them we share their viewpoints and that while they are a new generation of black voters, we, too, are a new generation of Republicans," he says.

Indeed, Republicans say now is the time to act. "It's time for the Republican party to be whole again," says Jack Kemp, a 1996 vice presidential candidate. "For so long, the Republican party has written off the black vote, and the Democrats have taken it. Not any more."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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