Wooing the black vote

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Let's examine President Bush's effort to reach out to the black community and how it is panning out.

He could have been a sorehead about it: After all, black leaders worked strenuously to defeat him and there was a near-saturation black vote against him. But Mr. Bush, instead, is trying to win African-Americans over, trying to convince them that he will keep an attentive eye on their needs - that he will be their president despite their unhappiness over his making it to the White House.

So Bush has given key cabinet spots to African-Americans, and during his early days in office met with children at two predominantly black schools and advocated policies intended in part to rehabilitate black communities.

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He also has met with the Congressional Black Caucus.

I asked an African-American employee at the St. Regis Hotel where the Monitor hosts its breakfasts what he thought of Bush's efforts to show he is holding no grudges and is going to be watchful of African-American needs. "Just tokens," he said.

Then, after Bush had been in office about a week and was already receiving rave notices, the Monitor group met with two GOP pollsters - Whit Ayres and Neil Newhouse - who said that the president's approval rating has risen to 65 percent. That certainly was well above the vote Bush received in the election. So I asked them who were the Democrats being wooed over. They said many of those moving over to Bush were women. "Any blacks?" I asked. "Very few," Mr. Ayres answered and Mr. Newhouse nodded.

The following week one of America's (and certainly the Republicans') premier African-American leaders, Rep. J.C. Watts, came to breakfast. As I questioned him I recited in detail all these efforts that Bush was making to break down the barrier between himself and African-Americans, and then asked: Can Bush ever win over the blacks?

Mr. Watts, who serves as one of the House GOP leaders, said he thought Bush could warm up his relationship with African-Americans, "but it has to be substantively, with programs." He said that the appointments of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Rod Paige win Bush few points with African-Americans, who say, "these are not our blacks." And Bush's visits with black children and leaders, Watts says, aren't enough to persuade African-Americans to change parties.

But, says Watts, with education and other social programs that clearly help African-Americans, Bush will be able to make some progress in reducing the almost completely Democratic makeup of the black vote. "Maybe down to the 70 percent bracket?" I asked. "Let's say 49 percent," Watts answered. Then he winked at us. Thus, he left the impression that if Bush is able to make even slight headway in turning black Democrats into GOP voters, it will be a triumph on his part.

If that happens - even with such a small pickup of black votes - it could help Bush substantially in a reelection attempt. Obviously, too, if Bush convinces African-Americans that he is, at least, trying to be their friend, he might soften their opposition to him. Thus they might not be so aggressive about turning out at the polls in trying to defeat him.

At one point in the breakfast, Watts pointed out how solidly Democratic African-Americans had been in this country - certainly during his lifetime. He, himself, is an exception. Indeed, he's had his share of discrimination during his earlier years from whites and now from those blacks who view him as an "Uncle Tom."

He's been helped in avoiding racial slurs by being a famous University of Oklahoma football hero. But even in that role, he met discriminatory attitudes from whites who weren't ready to accept a black quarterback. They thought that no African-American could be smart enough to play that position. Watts, of course, showed them how wrong they were.

Perhaps Watts is right, that Bush will make some inroads into that solid Democratic black vote. I find it simply bad judgment on the part of African-Americans to put all their support behind one party. When they lose in a presidential race, they face lonely years of being left out - or, at least, feeling left out. That's why so many African-Americans and their leaders were not just upset - but angry - when Gore lost.

I keep asking myself: When will the color of our skin no longer be a part of electing our leaders and shaping our politics? I asked that question back in the late 1930s when I was in law school. And I'm dismayed that I'm still having to ask it. When, oh when!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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