THE INVITATION isn't as fervent as the "y'all come" of a new preacher seeking parishioners, but the Republican Party is trying to bring more African Americans into its fold. It is doing this not by appealing to party affiliation but to common ground on issues in which blacks have traditionally held conservative views, including homosexuality and public prayer.
One recruiter is Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, who will deny on a stack of Bibles that his Samaritan Project to uplift America's inner cities by working with anti-bigotry, teen abstinence and anti-drug groups was politically planned.
But in a March 30 interview on "Lead Story," a news talk show on Black Entertainment Television, Mr. Reed admitted the project might benefit the GOP.
A surge in black male voters
Both Republican and Democratic strategists were surprised by a 1.7 million increase in the number of black men who voted in the 1996 presidential election, compared to the one four years before. The significance of that statistic grows when one considers the Sentencing Project's report earlier this year that one out of seven African-American men isn't even allowed to vote, having been convicted of a felony.
The two most frequently expressed reasons for the surge in the black male electorate are the Democrats' voter registration drive, helped by Jesse Jackson, and the appeals to civic responsibility made at the Million Man March, which was birthed by Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Farrakhan has since become a focus of the new Republican moves toward blacks due to his and the party's mutual views on self-reliance as the best route to black achievement.
The party's staunch conservatives don't know how to take the Nation of Islam leader who applauds their speeches. On The Sun's April 18 Opinion Commentary page, Mr. Farrakhan was attacked on the usual grounds -- anti-Semitism, racial bigotry and religious weirdoism -- by Michael Kelly, editor of The New Republic. Mr. Kelly concluded that it is "immoral to deal with Mr. Farrakhan at all, except to fight him."
That Mr. Kelly may not have the situation in clear view, however, was suggested by his archaic belief that black people monolithicly gather under the umbrella of one leader, whom he fears Mr. Farrakhan will become. In saying "most whites don't want to be around blacks, and most blacks don't want to be around whites," Mr. Kelly may have expressed a personal credo, but it won't take the Republicans very far.
Even if the GOP decides to ignore Mr. Farrakhan -- and it has not decided that it will -- you can still expect the party to do more to court the black vote. It offered a record 24 African-American candidates for Congress last year, including Danny Covington in Vicksburg, Miss., and Teresa Doggett in Austin, Texas -- places where you would not expect to find a black Republican nominee.
None of the African-American challengers won. In fact, incumbent black Republican Congressman Gary Franks of Connecticut also lost. But the black candidates signaled a change in the party that it quickly sought to advertise by having black Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts give the Republican response to President Clinton's State of the Union address.
Now the GOP has to go beyond such symbolism. The apparent ace up its sleeve is Colin Powell, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he is sounding less and less like someone who will run for president in 2000. If it can get the general on the ticket without losing too much blood to the same conservatives who fear Mr. Farrakhan and think Mr. Powell is too liberal on affirmative action, the GOP could see the highest percentage of blacks vote Republican since Reconstruction.
=1 Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 4/19/97