Gop Agenda Alarms African-americans

December 03, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The new Republican majority in Congress is clear about its formula for putting America back on track: Cut welfare, fight crime with more police and prisons, slash taxes, gut social programs, shrink government.

That formula alarms many African-American leaders and analysts, who believe it carries a troubling racial undertone because it threatens programs that disproportionately benefit blacks and members of other minority groups.

"I think there was an us-and-them scenario underlying this election and this agenda," said Robert T. Starks, a political scientist at Northeastern Illinois University. "It seems white America determined that the Republican Party can best take the country back from 'those people.' And at the top of the list of 'those people' are African-Americans."

Since their election sweep, Republicans have been crafting a legislative plan that leans toward reducing many of the social programs that have been championed by the civil rights community for a generation.

"We recognize that the federal government can only do so much in addressing the problems that affect many of our communities," said Wade Henderson, a Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But at the same time, black people seem to have become a convenient target for the kind of scapegoating that this election seemed to make so easy."

Many African-American leaders say black interests may no longer occupy even a marginal place on the national agenda. That prospect troubles liberals, although black conservatives see it as a sign of progress.

"We're not in the business of special treatment for anybody -- that's the message that has to get across," said Armstrong Williams, a Washington radio talk-show host and public relations man who worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Clarence Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice. "There is no black agenda. There is no white agenda. There is only an American agenda."

Others disagree. They say the plans being crafted in Congress reflect a public attitude that tends to point fingers at groups of people for the nation's troubles.

"Every poll I see seems to indicate that the group who voted in largest numbers were angry white men who feel their place is being threatened by expanding opportunity for other people," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat and outgoing chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

In their "Contract with America," House Republicans promise to cut at least $45 billion from social and child-nutrition programs over five years. Among the potential targets: Head Start; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) child-nutrition program; free

lunch and breakfast programs; money for crime prevention in the recently passed crime bill; and welfare.

The contract also calls for eliminating welfare benefits for children of mothers under 18 and allowing states to cut benefits for recipients who have received them for more than two years.

"They don't have a mandate to take babies from their mothers and put them in orphanages," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said in an interview. "They have no mandate to increase the number of people in poverty."

Many targeted social programs are relatively small -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main welfare program, consumes less than 1 percent of the federal budget, for example -- but have assumed larger significance in the anti-government atmosphere.

"We must do something to reshape the welfare program so that the taxpayers working in this country are no longer burdened to a greater and greater degree for programs that create dependency and don't solve problems," said Rep. Bill Archer, the Texas Republican expected to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Some say the push to cut social programs has racial implications because the clients of those programs are disproportionately black. Blacks make up 12 percent of the nation's population but 38 percent of the 14 million people -- including 9.5 million children -- who receive AFDC.

"The electorate will move toward the easiest targets, and the easiest targets are those who are poor and black," said Frank L. Morris, dean of Morgan State University's School of Graduate Studies and Research.

But Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, is among blacks who say race is not an issue. The issue, he said, is that many social programs have failed. "People who are inclined to see race will see it in anything," he said. "I think this election shows that the country is setting those people aside and is ready to seek honest answers to serious challenges."

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