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Black? Like Me!
George W. Bush wants African Americans to like him. He's setting himself up for failure.
by Corey A. Tyler

Black? Like Me!

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 vs. Wade)

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, "hollow."

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.

 

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