"One America," the flip side of the "Two Americas" theme trumpeted by the Kerry-Edwards campaign, takes on a whole new meaning in front of minority audiences.
That theme was pushed by Sen. John Kerry earlier this month at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Combined with the toxic rhetoric of the NAACP leadership throughout the Bush years, the message seems clear: the president (and I paraphrase) divides Americans by race; approves of lynchings, hate crimes, and racial profiling; and wants to take away your civil rights.
In "One America," you don't challenge the group-think on something like hate-crimes legislation. President Bush crossed that line while governor of Texas, arguing against the legislation because the swift prosecution and sentencing of the three men who lynched James Byrd in 1998 showed the system was already able to crack down on hate crimes. He wasn't questioning the rights of hate-crime victims, but the policy of how to secure those rights. In "One America," though, if you disagree on race, chances are you will be labeled anything from insensitive to racist, which for some is synonymous with Republican.
I originally supported the last incarnation of "One America," President Clinton's wide-ranging initiative on race that was supposed to go from conversation to action. But after soaking all the glory he could from the dialogues, the "first black president," as some black Americans called Mr. Clinton, deep-sixed the hard-working committee's final report. Clinton no doubt reasoned that symbolism alone was enough to keep black voters in the Democratic column in 2000.
I'm all for regular discussions about race. The more we learn about how and why we disagree, the less likely Americans are to fall for fearmongering politicians. But, in general, we don't dialogue. We monologue past each other, touching on pet issues, assuming the worst, afraid to listen. So it's relatively easy for a politician to stoke division.
A real call for "One America" wouldn't start with innuendo and name-calling. It might start with words such as the ones Bush used while repudiating fellow Republican Trent Lott's infamous ode to segregation: "Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. And the founding ideals of our nation, and in fact the founding ideals of the political party I represent, were and remain today the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.... We must not rest until every person of every race believes in the promise of America, because they see it ... with their own eyes, and they live it and feel it in their own lives."
But follow-up would be needed: For example, blacks named to high-level cabinet appointments; increases in black-owned homes and small businesses; postrecession decreases in the black unemployment rate; help for faith-based communities; increased support for schools, from elementary to historically black colleges and universities.
These are things Bush has accomplished. This doesn't make him the next Jesse Jackson (that's Al Sharpton), but it does show that Republicans are actively engaged in securing fundamental rights and increasing opportunity.
Argue the statistics, challenge the priorities. All fair game. But the NAACP leadership and Senator Kerry should stop pretending there's a segregationist behind every policy dispute. Or they should say what they really mean: "One America - for Democrats."
• Kevin Ferris is a member of The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board.