Bush and the Black Agenda

Actions will help dispel the disillusionment

Following the November election, many African-Americans felt, and still feel, disillusioned.

The vast majority did not vote for the new president. And not since Barry Goldwater has a Republican candidate done so poorly with this constituency.

Moreover, President Bush seems to have an image problem with blacks, many of whom say they just can't connect with him.

Now, as Mr. Bush's honeymoon begins to wane, most African-Americans in Congress still are repeating the "it's not what he says, but what he does" mantra.

Yet, so far, on liberal black issues ranging from eliminating voter fraud to addressing racial profiling to getting Justice Ronnie White reappointed (and hinting that Judge Roger Gregory's appointment to the federal 4th circuit might be extended), the Bush administration appears to be taking the offensive, leaving the 37-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on the defensive, and late in formally rolling out an agenda.

Some of these Bush moves must not take precedence over real reform for African-Americans, who put a lot of stock in authenticity ("do what you say you're going to do") when it comes to their politicians.

There are signs that the Bush commitment to a diversified administration goes beyond a few cabinet choices. The new deputy attorney general, for instance, is Larry Thompson, a black attorney from Atlanta. And Attorney General Ashcroft has said his No. 1 priority is to address the police practice of racial profiling.

But the CBC says priority No. 1 for them is election reform, and while Mr. Ashcroft said last week that "voter fraud and disenfranchisement are very serious issues" that won't be tolerated by the Justice Department, both he and the president now have the opportunity to make it more clear just what that means.

The CBC is also watching to see how the Republicans deal with the fact that a majority of poor black and Hispanic families will receive little tax benefit under the Bush tax cut plan. And they have concerns (as does the Democratic Caucus) regarding the GOP's move to take the issue of minority higher education out of the House education and workforce subcommittee and put it in another dealing with social programs. They're worried about the Census Bureau's acknowledged undercount of 3.4 million people (most of them minorities, they say).

So the caucus says "the jury is still out" when it comes to seeing what Bush will actually do.

Tackling these issues might be hard for Bush politically because that would displease his party's right wing, but it would pay off with the wider public, blacks especially. The president knows he and the GOP must work to win some black support before the 2002 mid-term elections.

Finding common ground won't be easy for this administration and the CBC; in many ways, most blacks are on one side of a now firmly etched divide.

But so far, Bush has begun the bridging process. Now he must back up the words with more actions, such as his proposal to provide federal support to faith-based social organizations and the Ashcroft move on racial profiling. Then Bush's gestures of friendship will have the ring of authenticity for African-Americans.

It's also up to the CBC to shift its strategy from "wait and see" to "roll up their sleeves and work with" the new president.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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