Sen. Frist, don't miss this chance

January 05, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Dear Sen. Bill Frist:

I hope you won't mind some unsolicited advice as the Senate returns to work and you assume leadership of the Republican Party. You take over, of course, from former party chief Trent Lott, who famously opined that the nation would have been better off had it elected a segregationist president in 1948.

Now he's out of a job and you're promising to work toward "healing those wounds of division" his bungling caused. That's a noble sentiment, yes. But healing will require more than sentiment.

The way I see it, Mr. Lott's misstep creates an opportunity for your party. It provides you a platform on the issue of race, an opening to address yesterday's inequities and tomorrow's promises. This could be the proverbial blessing in disguise for a party that says it wants to win black votes.

But before that can happen, the GOP must explain what it will do to earn those votes.

That's a challenge Republicans somehow fumble every time.

Instead of making their case to the black electorate, the party faithful piously proclaim themselves strangers to special interests - keeping an admirably straight face as they do. They tell us their work benefits not some group of Americans, but "all Americans." A rising tide lifts every boat, and so on.

But have you ever noticed that the black boats never seem to lift as high as the white ones? For instance, even when the black unemployment rate fell to historic lows in the late '90s, it was still more than double the rate for whites. Similar gaps persist in health care, criminal justice, education, banking and virtually everything else by which quality of life is measured.

Now, you might argue that those gaps also reflect factors other than race, and I wouldn't argue. But senator, make no mistake: Race is the primary engine of the disparity. And the despair.

The inability to face that fact squarely is part of your party's problem. The GOP is never comfortable discussing race, unless you count the thinly veiled appeals Republican candidates have sent to racists in the white South over the years. Ronald Reagan's genuflection to "states' rights" while campaigning in the Mississippi town where three civil rights workers were murdered is but the most notorious example.

The chief effect of the GOP's racial pandering, insensitivity and silence has been to give the Democrats a stranglehold on the black vote. Blacks have long been the most loyal of Democratic constituencies, even though that loyalty has not always been returned.

The irony is that, on any number of issues from capital punishment to gun control to abortion, large numbers of blacks hold conservative views. Yet the most conservative party - which is to say, yours - has never been able to translate those views into votes. Because, on the one issue that affects us most profoundly - race - black people simply do not trust conservatives.

This should not surprise you. Offhand, I can't think of a single instance when the conservative position on a racial issue has been vindicated by history. Not desegregation of the military, not the Montgomery bus boycott, not the Voting Rights Act, not the Civil Rights Act, not Brown vs. Board of Education. Conservatives, both Democratic and Republican, opposed them all.

This is the sorry history against which you struggle. And if you're serious about that struggle, be advised that it will require more than promises. It will require that GOP candidates come into black churches and media, black conventions and workplaces. They must commit themselves to compete for the votes of working men and women in those places as energetically as Mr. Reagan did the votes of unreconstructed segregationists 22 years ago.

And senator, when those voters ask why they should support your party, your candidates must finally give them something conservatives never give black voters.

Answers.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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