When it comes to race relations, George W. Bush faces some ironies. He prided himself on reaching out to minorities in Texas, and he tried during the campaign to touch bases with black leaders. But fewer than 1 out of 10 African-Americans voted for Mr. Bush.
The drawn-out ending to the election, with ongoing charges of irregularities and obstruction of voting in black precincts in Florida, has deepened disaffection with Bush and the GOP among many black Americans. This situation poses two questions: What can the president-elect do to build bridges to blacks? And why is it important that he do so?
Bush has begun what he hopes will be a process of reconciliation. His appointment of two African-Americans to the highest foreign-policy posts in his administration might normally have won some praise from the wider black community. But these two, Colin Powell as secretary of State, and Condoleeza Rice as national security adviser, were known to be shoo-ins for months. They're outstanding people in their fields, but their duties will not be seen by most African-Americans as having any great impact on their lives in this country.
Social, economic, and educational policy are what count most for America's minorities. On those fronts, Bush's primary emphasis has been on forming partnerships with "faith-based" local organizations active in housing, job-creation, drug-rehabilitation, and other fields. Many of the most effective such organizations are black-run.
Bush has met with black ministers and others involved in these programs and hopes to push for legislation to provide federal support for their efforts. This idea has some merit, since local groups close to their communities are often best equipped to pinpoint and address problems. It also has some built-in drawbacks: Can it be scaled up to address widespread social ills? Can government stay clear of entanglement with the specifically religious agendas of some programs?
Beyond those issues, what will the Bush administration do to address other key black concerns? In particular, will the new administration show a firm commitment to enforcing federal civil rights laws? Will the Bush team's commitment to enlarging opportunity for all Americans be vigorous enough to offset the negative perception among blacks that the new president intends to roll back affirmative action?
Answering these questions will not be just a matter of smart public relations or good politics. Race relations remain an important item on the country's agenda. Every administration should be duty-bound to seek healing and progress in this area. The new president, who puts great emphasis on compassion, has a special opportunity to prove that he and his party care.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society