Bush has far to go to win the black vote

In George W. Bush's Texas, only two whites have been sentenced to death for killing a black person since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s.

July 04, 1999|By Paul Delaney

A DECADE ago, right-wing New York Times columnists William Safire and Abe Rosenthal proclaimed themselves "bleeding-heart conservatives," a cynical take on bleeding-heart liberals. They said they were tough on crime and supported tax cuts but cared about the poor.

Now comes along GOP presidential front-runner and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has taken that old saw and dressed it up with a new name: "compassionate conservatism."

The evolution leaves matters as befuddled as ever. The aim is to soften the harsh image the conservatives have managed to convey, particularly to minorities and women, through words and deeds. But at the moment, the phrase is a mere designer slogan, in this age of marketing, to provide cover for a lot of people opposed to programs that address the serious problems of many minorities, poor people and women.

"I have a conservative mind and a compassionate heart," Mr. Bush has said. However, even some Republicans have questioned the validity of that notion. In a scathing attack in the New York Times, right-wing author Mickey Kaus said that "compassion is a miserable basis for American politics" because it signifies a softness traditionally attributable to Democrats. Real Republicans are real men, like the Marlboro man.

It is a slogan that cannot hide past right-wing sins and will not get Mr. Bush past his party's extremists in the Christian Coalition, including some financial backers and some members of Congress.

If the governor thinks compassionate conservatism is policy enough to attract great numbers of African-American support, he is in for a big disappointment. Remember, for a long time, conservatives assaulted liberals for their civil rights agenda and berated us for falling for it.

Now it appears, at least rhetorically, a leading Republican conservative is doing the very same thing.

Then, Mr. Kaus had it right. The problem for Mr. Bush and his new-found platform is that it ignores the huge gulf between the bulk of his white supporters and many nonwhite Americans, especially blacks.

Essentially, many black people do not believe that their main concerns of racism, inequality, poverty, an inequitable justice system and unequal distribution of wealth, among others, are going to be solved by the right-wing agenda that's against gun control, abortion rights and affirmative action and is in favor of a flag-burning amendment, posting the Ten Commandments in schools and a host of other issues many whites hold dear.

Many, if not most African-Americans are more concerned with whites who tie black folks behind pick-up trucks and drag them to death, whites who show disregard for the Stars and Stripes in favor of the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

The differences, at this point, are so fundamentally entrenched they seem irreconcilable. Blacks, similar to whites, have a real concern about crime, but worry more about unequal justice, especially when it comes to death-penalty sentencing, which is disproportionately meted out to blacks.

In Mr. Bush's Texas, only two whites have been sentenced to death for killing a black person since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s.

There also is the fact that white conservatives behave no differently from most other Americans in dealing with us. For example, publisher Steve Forbes totally ignored the black community in his try for the presidency in 1996.

This time around, he has seen the light. Well, a little beam. It told him to do something "black." He named a black campaign chairman, Kenneth Blackwell -- no pun intended, I'm sure. Problem is, Forbes, which bears the family name, has a notorious record on hiring black journalists.

In addition to issues, Mr. Bush and his compassionate conservatism will have to contend with the likes of Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who embraced the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that was a successor of the White Citizens' Councils, which was essentially made up of former Klansmen and other white supremacists. This is the crowd that talks "tough love." Tough, it is, but love and caring are lost in the rhetoric.

That is what Mr. Bush will have to overcome, for us, in the words of singer Louis Jordan, "beware, brother, beware."

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

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