US Blacks Tilt Right Politically

But growing conservatism may not mean GOP gains

AN African-American is now running for president -- and he's not perennial Democratic Party activist Jesse Jackson.

Reagan-era State Department official Alan Keyes is stumping the country in quest of the Republican presidential nomination, stressing opposition to abortion and a tough message about morality to set himself apart in the crowded GOP field.

Mr. Keyes has little chance of winning. He has lost, badly, in two previous tries at a US Senate seat from Maryland. But the mere fact that a black Republican is planning a $12 million try for the Oval Office says much about changing attitudes among American minorities. Some 25 to 40 percent of blacks now label themselves ''conservative,'' opinion polls report.

That doesn't mean blacks are about to desert the Democratic Party en masse. GOP leaders continue to alienate many African-Americans through such actions as attacks on affirmative-action policies, black Republicans themselves say.

''I think the Republican Party has missed a great opportunity to get a lot more support from blacks,'' says Willie Richardson, publisher of the conservative journal National Minority Politics.

If the GOP ever does reach out successfully to large numbers of minority voters, the result could be a final shattering of the New Deal democratic coalition. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has claimed that such a shift would leave liberalism with only 30 percent of public support.

There are signs that some movement is already under way. Twenty-four black Republicans ran for federal office last November -- a modern record. There are now two black Republicans in the House, the most since before the turn of the century. One of them, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, is co-chairman of a Gingrich-created task force on methods of attracting minority voters.

Movement is even more pronounced on the state level. Gov. George Voinovich, in Ohio, won reelection with upward of 40 percent of the black vote. Gov. Pete Wilson, in California, won more than 20 percent.

But past black support of Republicans has been so scant that almost any development at all seems an upward trend.

The GOP still polled only 9 percent of the black vote in the 1994 congressional midterm elections. And much of the Contract With America leaves minority voters cold. Almost 70 percent of blacks polled disapproved of Republican-driven changes in the federal school-lunch program, for instance, according to a recent Times Mirror Center survey.

It's a political paradox. Increasingly, a plurality of blacks describe themselves as social conservatives. Yet this trend has not been reflected that strongly in electoral results.

The problem, black conservatives say, is that the Republican Party only talks about attracting minority support. On a national level, GOP candidates tend to focus on strategies designed to appeal largely to frustrated white southern males. Those Republican figures who appear genuinely devoted to inclusion of minorities, such as Jack Kemp, are pushed to the fringes of the party.

''A lot of blacks are tired of liberalism and tired of the civil rights establishment,'' says Dr. Jeff Howard, head of the Efficacy Institute, a self-help development organization, Lexington, Mass. ''People are looking for alternatives, but they are not going to join a party that seems to be using us to gain favor with whites.''

Recent history weighs against the Republicans. Many blacks simply do not trust a party that on the whole opposed civil rights legislation in the 1960s and used convicted black felon Willie Horton to appeal to white voters in the 1980s. Many remember the Great Society programs sponsored by Democrats, which helped boost the percentage of middle-class blacks.

Republican candidates seldom go into minority communities to ask for votes, claim black conservatives. They point to exceptions such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Minorities also have too much political capital invested in the Democratic Party to let go easily. Some 99 percent of African-American elected officials nationwide are Democrats. There are only 10 black GOP state legislators in the nation, for instance.

On a practical level, however, this concentration could also be used to argue that blacks should spread their votes around. With Republicans increasing their power on the national level, shouldn't blacks try to raise their concerns more loudly within the GOP itself?

The Democrats will likely hold on to the vast majority of black voters for the foreseeable future. But a shift of even a small percentage could represent a major change in US politics.

Black conservatives aren't holding their breath. They say the new GOP congressional majority, to them, talks in confusing terms, mixing positive references to the need for values with negative bashing of minority rights.

''When I listen to those guys talk, I could be sitting in the front pew of Sweet Home Baptist Church ... or I could be listening to my high school principal talk during the days of segregation,'' says John Butler, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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