Black? Like Me!
George W. Bush wants African Americans to like him. He's setting himself
up for failure.
by Corey A. Tyler
You'd think, seeing as we live in this bastion of scholarly
analysis and introspection, the media's take on the African
American rebuke of the Bush presidential campaign would be
a bit more multi-dimensional. There was certainly more than
enough fodder to go around - especially with questions surrounding
massive voter disenfranchisement in that great swing state
of Florida - thirty six days worth to be exact, for the chattering
class to chew on for a few weeks.
But, if the first few paltry reports are any indication of the media's
decided approach, it looks like they're content to treat it as they would
any other event where race is an irrefutable factor: put the opposing
sides on either end of your television screen and let them go at it, or
just ignore the whole damn thing altogether.
We are all quite familiar now with what African Americans were thinking
when they went to the polls last November. The math for us was never fuzzy;
Clinton made things better, Bush would make thinks worse. We'd all felt
Clinton's pain through impeachment. There isn't a black person over the
age of consent that hasn't held a job and suffered mightily under a superior
who feverishly combed the appendix of the company handbook for a clause
to justify kicking them out - regardless of performance.
If Gore were at least half the guy Clinton was, we'd be all right. How
then does one explain the plausible prerogative of the current administration
in its attempt to make nice with black folk? Overwhelmingly rejected by
slightly more than ninety percent of the African American voting population,
Bush storms headstrong into a cultural campaign he has already lost and
is setting himself up to loose again by perhaps an even larger margin.
It bears mentioning that there was a time in the not too distant past
when the Democratic Party couldn't buy black folk's attention let alone
allegiance. This, of course, was moons before Lyndon Johnson knowingly
closed the deal with the civil rights legislation of the mid sixties.
Since then, from Nixon to Bush Sr., Republicans have run against the spirit
of that period of enfranchisement and all those that followed. (ie. Roe
Thirty years of kicking and screaming and nonchalantly demonizing African
Americans for having the gall to seek across the board equality has made
the party in the eyes of countless blacks the after-hours
hangout post of the weekly Klan rally; our suspicions readily justified
when their standard bearer makes a pit stop at a place like Bob Jones
University or nominates a supporter of Southern Partisan Magazine to be
the nation's top cop (as if racial profiling weren't enough of a problem).
In his speech to the NAACP during last year's presidential run, Bush
publicly rebuked his political brethren for their behavior over those
thirty years, shaking a fist of solidarity with his audience over how
the party of Lincoln had not carried his mantle. It was without question
an admirable admonition from a Republican presidential candidate before
a largely black audience. Historical even, and perhaps the first step
of the party's admittance and purging of its racist handicap.
It was that statement and the importance of it that made the rest of
his verbiage, or lack thereof, all the more confusing. In what was primarily
a stump speech, Bush offered not one single policy, initiative, or objective
that his potential administration would push and procure once elected.
Instead he spoke singingly of a pantheon of African Americans who bled
and died so that we could all one day get along. In apologizing for the
obstructive tactics of his political banner but offering no clear path
to rectify and prevent it from ever happening again, Bush took the audience
of the country's oldest civil rights organization on a long ride to nowhere
with a speech that was more half hearted promise than contrite pledge.
It was, as California Congresswoman Maxine Waters said of it soon afterwards,
In this appearance, and from the smoke thin screen of inclusion on display
at last years Republican National Convention, one clearly sees how the
current president will react when faced with the most pressing issues
and concerns of African Americans: Make no promises, make no mistakes,
but by all means, make nice. One wonders whether Bush even sees the fault
line in this approach. By constantly being seen with black children, at
predominately black schools and with black leaders (as has been the case
in the three weeks post inaugural), his high visibility, coupled with
the overwhelming rejection he received from the black community, creates
a chasm that only comprehensive legislation can fill; legislation his
hobbled mandate will not allow him to sustain in the face of his core
constituency's almost certain lack of support.
Indeed, one is hard pressed to imagine Phil Gramm, Trent Lott or Tom
DeLay coming to agreement on issues held to heart by Ms. Waters or Congressman
Jesse Jackson Jr. or just about any African American other than the culturally
disowned J.C. Watts.
Knowing then that there is no support from his allies for the type of
activist legislation regarding civil rights exactly the type of
legislation most important to black Americans and most likely to force
them to re-appraise their political allegiance Bush appears ready
to repeat the offense of the NAACP speech, which is to say little and
do less. But without deeds to match his rhetoric of inclusion, what does
Bush think the reaction from the black electorate will be in two years,
let alone four?
In positioning his approach so far, Bush has tried to paint the rejection
of his candidacy by African Americans as a little more than a quarrel
between compatriots; which means that his efforts to reach out are less
about fostering a real sense of inclusion and more about the appearance
of patching a rift that thirty years of anti-busing or anti-affirmative
action policies have created (what Gayle Norton would call 'Bad Facts');
the seeming logic behind this being that deep down inside, black people
really do want to vote Republican.
However, the recent voting history of black Americans clearly demonstrates
otherwise. With Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election taking eighty-four percent
of the black vote, followed by the eighty-seven percent voting block that
Democratic candidates received in the 1998 mid-term elections, the ninety-plus
percent garnered by Al Gore would irrefutably put Black Americans firmly
in the camp of the Democratic party.
Perhaps the rift that Bush perceives, as seems the case with his mandate
to govern, is self-made. One shudders to think what the numbers will be
two years from now in light of the Florida fiasco. Even if Bush's intention
to reverse the tide of blacks' political allegiance is honest, his ambitions
are shackled by forces within his party that aren't in any particular
hurry to snuggle up with black America.
Will an expansion of affirmative action or a raise in the minimum wage
happen in a time when the Senate, the House and the Oval Office are ruled
by conservative Republicans? Not likely. The right has waited eight years
to recapture the bully pulpit of the White House and even longer for the
chance at the ultimate political hat trick of majority status or outright
control of the three branches (some would say four) of government. It's
hard to imagine the party heads wasting too much of their time on a constituency
that gave just about all of their votes to the other candidate.
At some point, perhaps on his way to another predominantly black school
in the District of Columbia, someone will remind Bush that he is, after
all, a Republican. What other reason is there for Bush to continue this
political game of Russian roulette? Pure necessity. In two years, more
members of the majority party in the Senate and the House will face re-election
fights wherein a monolithic voting block by any group against them could
send them packing and tip the balance of power to the Democrats.
There's also the long-term goal of holding on to power. As former House
Speaker Newt Gingrich noted in an essay in the Wall Street Journal days
after the election, if Republicans were able to procure just fifteen percent
of the black vote, they'd be in power for years. Juxtapose this intention
with former Education secretary Bill Bennett's pinpoint observation that
most Republicans see African Americans as "a group of aliens"
and you start to see that Bush's attempts to corral the black vote would
be more effective if his much lauded charm was coupled with more policies
and less photo-ops.
Sadly, it seems the only person who doesn't realize how hopeless his
situation is is Bush himself. Indeed all of America, not just black Americans,
may soon learn how tremendously difficult it is to be both compassionate
and a conservative.
Corey A. Tyler is a playwright living in Los Angeles.