IN HIS VICTORY speech, President Bush again assured the millions of Americans who did not vote for him that he'd reach out to them, too. Black voters, who again made up a big share of those millions, remain deeply skeptical. There's good reason.
Mr. Bush repeatedly promised before and during his first campaign that he'd make diversity the watchword among Republicans. But his idea of outreach meant meeting with hand-picked black ministers, farmers and business owners and deliberately snubbing the Congressional Black Caucus and the traditional civil rights leaders.
It also meant staging well-publicized photo-op sessions at black elementary schools, talking up the safe issues of more minority homeownership and increased aid to historically black colleges, and continually reminding blacks that he appointed Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell and Rod Paige to top policy-making positions.
His refusal during this campaign to speak at the NAACP convention, give interviews to the black press and formally meet with the Congressional Black Caucus didn't do much to assure black voters that a lot had changed this time around. That really shouldn't surprise anyone.
Black Democrats have waged relentless political warfare against Mr. Bush since he took office. They have pounded him with allegations that the Republicans cheated blacks out of thousands of votes in Florida and hijacked the White House. They fumed at him for picking John Ashcroft as attorney general. They rail that he will pick more Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas. They are enraged that he has assailed affirmative action. Now with a clear popular mandate that black voters didn't give him, their fright of four more years of Mr. Bush is even greater.
Still, Mr. Bush would make a terrible mistake to treat black Democrats and the traditional civil rights leaders as soreheads because they attacked him, or worse, to ignore black voters because they didn't back him. For the past three decades, civil rights leaders have fought tough battles in the courts and the streets for voting rights, affirmative action, school integration and an end to housing and job discrimination and police abuse. They are the ones who accurately capture the mood of fear and hostility the majority of blacks still feel toward Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush, even if he didn't say it, was elected to serve not just those who voted for him but all the people. He is duty-bound to keep trying to reach out to those blacks who oppose him. When and if he does, civil right leaders and black Democrats must reach back to him. The reality is that Mr. Bush, not Sen. John Kerry, will be in the White House, and the issues that blacks expect and demand Mr. Bush to deal with won't go away.
The trick is to find those issues that both sides can agree on and that carry the least political risk for Mr. Bush to relent on. One is the HIV/AIDS crisis. According to health reports, blacks make up more than half of all new AIDS cases in the country. This is a health danger that potentially affects all Americans. Mr. Bush has made the HIV/AIDS fight in Africa a major priority and has called for a radical increase in funds for AIDS prevention, treatment and education programs. Black leaders must push Mr. Bush to make good on his promise to provide the resources to combat the disease.
Education is another possible consensus issue. While many black leaders applaud Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, they hammer him for doing little to provide adequate funds to make the program work and for doing little to deal with the growing racial isolation of black students in failing inner-city schools.
On the issue of school vouchers, Mr. Bush has slightly backed away from them but has not dropped the issue. Vouchers would drain billions from cash-strapped failing public schools and doom those black students left behind to virtual educational extinction. Black leaders should urge Mr. Bush to abandon them.
By bashing each other, Mr. Bush and black leaders run the fatal risk of repeating the racial freeze during the Reagan years. Black leaders and Ronald Reagan declared each other persona non grata.
This cost blacks dearly. Republican conservatives launched a withering assault on affirmative action, slashed and burned social and education programs and pandered to the GOP's most rabid ultraconservative elements.
This cost Republicans dearly. It cemented the belief among blacks and minorities that the Republican Party is an insular, bigoted party hostile to their interests. They flocked to the Democrats in droves, helped boot President George H. W. Bush from the White House and virtually enshrined Bill Clinton as their savior. That fate didn't befall this President Bush, but it could happen to the next Republican presidential contender.
That's why Mr. Bush and black leaders must bury the hatchet and figure out how they can work together.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.