Bush's toughest task as a 'uniter'

Despite diversity in the Cabinet, many blacks say true test of inclusiveness will come on issues.

For a president-elect pledged to be a uniter, not a divider, the toughest challenge ahead may be mending fences with the African-American community.

The early, high-level appointments of Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of State and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser helped. So did meetings in Austin yesterday with black ministers and others to discuss how the new administration can expand "faith-based" social services to the poor.

But winning back the GOP's most alienated constituency will be a hard sell for the new president - particularly coming after a Democratic administration that made racial reconciliation a top priority. Indeed, black civil rights leaders insist it will take more than appointments, meetings, or symbols to overcome decades of suspicion - even hostility - many blacks harbor toward Republicans. It will hinge more on the direction and tone the Bush administration takes on issues ranging from affirmative action to school vouchers.

"You can't just look at who is being named, you have to look also at the priorities and policy priorities that these nominees represent," says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, director of the Black Leadership Forum, which represents civil rights and social-service organizations.

Some 93 percent of black voters voted against George W. Bush in November, despite an unusually strong effort by a GOP candidate to reach out to minorities. Mr. Bush spoke to the NAACP convention this year, a venue Republicans generally avoid.

But in the end, mainstream black groups focused on turning out the vote for Al Gore, registering more than 4 million new voters in 29 states. Moreover, the black vote hit historic highs in some states, including Texas, New York, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, and especially Florida.

"In this election, there were several states where black voting was the highest it's ever been," says David Bositis, senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

It's that effort that makes Florida's undercounts especially painful for African-Americans. Civil rights groups are still documenting widespread allegations of disenfranchisement of voters, especially in black neighborhoods. (In Jacksonville, 1 in 3 ballots cast in black precincts were rejected by voting machines, about four times the number in white precincts.) Some 81 percent of blacks said that the outcome of the presidential election was unfair, compared with 40 percent of whites, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll this week.

As news organizations pursue their own hand recounts of those ballots, such feelings could intensify. The Orlando Sentinel reported this week that a recount of discarded ballots in Lake County, Fla., reduced the Bush margin of victory to two dozen votes. A Bush spokesman said the report constituted "mischief making" that would inflame "public passions."

When Ronald Reagan became president, he declined to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus - a slight many recall today. Bush is taking a different tack. He took a call from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And he promises to meet with civil rights leaders.

At the same time, he's opening a new front with black church leaders, many of whom gathered in Austin on Wednesday. These ministers and community activists are key players in the Bush strategy of "compassionate conservatism." A new office of faith-based action in the White House aims to ease regulations so that faith-based groups can receive federal funds for their work with the poor.

It's a controversial move within the African-American community. Some black church leaders worry that government funds could undermine their independence and obscure the church's spiritual mission.

Others say it's an effort to create a new layer of black leadership, which may be more sympathetic to the aims of the new administration.

"Any kind of a strategy to drive a wedge into the African-American community is bound to fail," says Barbara Arnwine, executive director for the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups charging voter discrimination in Florida.

Others worry that giving black churches more government funding could undermine their historic role in mobilizing their communities. "From 1940 to 1990, churches were seen as independent institutions that served as a platform for mobilization. Now, we find churches are getting more involved in schools and health programs funded by government, and it's had a chilling effect on black ministers using churches to mobilize voters," says Dr. Scruggs-Leftwich.

But black ministers who hope to be involved in this new strategy say it should not be dismissed as political window-dressing.

What really matters is "whether we can do something positive for young people in bad schools or addicted to substances," says the Rev. Mark Scott, director of the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester, Mass., a faith-based settlement house. "It's not about black ministers vs. civil rights folk. It's about letting people of good will work together to solve problems."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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