Friday, July 21, 2006

Bush and the NAACP: a fundamental disconnect

President Bush addressed the NAACP yesterday for the first time since winning the White House, which means that he and the civil rights organization have finally reached a d├ętente of sorts after six years of sporadic mutual distrust. I suppose I could just kiss off this event by noting that Bush’s bid to gin up black support for the GOP is probably futile, given the fact that, according to the polls, he currently enjoys the support of roughly nine percent of all African-Americans -- down from 18 percent in December ’04.

And it’s hard to imagine that Bush made many converts when he said that blacks should join him in his quest to eliminate the federal estate tax -- a pet GOP issue of greatest interest to rich white people who want to pass on their inheritances, and thus an issue that touches the lives of a minute fraction of black people. Indeed, there was predictably not a line in his speech about poverty, or, more specifically, about the latest Census Bureau figures which show that, during the first four years of his presidency, the percentage of blacks living below the poverty line jumped from 22.7 to 24.7, an increase of nine million.

There’s a lot more that can be said about what he didn’t say -- such as the fact that he opposes an increase in the minimum wage, and that he opposes expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a longstanding program that supplements low-wage incomes -- but I was most interested in something that he did say. One quick line, during the first 60 seconds:

“I come from a family committed to civil rights.”

That, really, is the crux of the matter. Yesterday’s address wasn’t just about trying to woo some black voters away from the Democrats party in the runup to the ’06 elections. It was, more importantly, the latest attempt (among countless attempts going back several generations) by a Bush family member to win over the black community simply by insisting that he is personally pure of heart. The Bushes have long sought to trumpet their good intentions, in the hopes that this would translate into mass black political support. The effort has never worked, but they keep trying anyway.

The president’s grandfather, Prescott, was a Connecticut senator during the ‘50s; he sponsored school desegregation bills. The president’s father, George H.W., was a young oil wildcatter in west Texas when he invited a local NAACP official to dinner at his house -- a shocking event in 1948. Some years later, when he chaired a county GOP committee, he put party funds in a black-owned bank, and in 1968, when he was serving in Congress, he supported fair housing legislation. The president’s brother, Jeb, has tried reaching out to blacks as Florida governor, and declaring how “it was wrong” when he ignored black voters during his first try for the big chair.

The problem, however, is that most black voters continue to judge politicians not on their good intentions, or whether their family has long been “committed to civil rights,” but on how they actually perform. President Bush may have admitted yesterday that he considered it “a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community,” but the fact is that the modern GOP over the past three decades has successfully wooed white voters with race-coded messages about crime, welfare, and job competition.

Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” was specifically designed to woo whites who couldn’t abide the northern Democratic-led crusades for desegregation and voting rights. The plan worked, and the GOP's dominance below the Mason-Dixon line is the result. Variations on the plan have worked ever since. The current president’s father won his 1988 race in part by sowing fear, in his TV ads, that his Democratic opponent would be soft on black criminals.

There is no sign thus far that George W. Bush will trigger a black stampede to the GOP simply because he is sincere about his intentions. It one thing for him to testify to his good heart, and to point out, as he did yesterday, that he applauds the GOP Congress’ renewal of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the reality is that the Bush administration’s Justice Department -- which is supposed to investigate such allegations as minority disenfranchisement at the ballot box – has not exactly followed the precepts of Martin Luther King.

The department's Civil Rights Division lawyers have twice signed off on Republican voting plans, in Georgia and Texas, that were later slapped down by the courts because they discriminated against minority voters. Not so coincidentally, the Division has been suffering a brain drain, with career civil rights lawyers quitting and young conservative idealogues taking their jobs. Reportedly, two-thirds of the lawyers in the Divison’s voting rights office have turned over during the past few years.

All told, it’s a cinch bet that Bush’s NAACP listeners care more about policy and performance than testaments to a family’s personal decency. As black politics expert David Bositis, an occasional GOP adviser on minority issues, told me right after the Katrina debacle, “Republicans always think that if they make some small (outreach) gestures, that African Americans will applaud their good intentions. They still don’t understand that African Americans would look at (the record) and conclude, ‘Those people really don’t like us.’”