Forging ties

Editorial Notebook

February 05, 2005|By Marjorie Valbrun

IN HIS State of the Union speech, President Bush talked about "bringing hope to harsh places," and giving "young men in our cities better options than apathy, or gangs, or jail," calling to mind certain rough neighborhoods populated by people of color.

"We need to make sure Americans of all races and backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice," he said, addressing a longstanding concern of black Americans about the disproportionate rates of black men in U.S. prisons and on death row.

And in a nod to black ministers who have enthusiastically signed on to his faith-based initiatives, the president said he had a three-year plan to develop "a broader outreach to at-risk youth which involves parents and pastors."

The plan may sound fuzzy at best, but Mr. Bush's speech was laced with many such presidential shout-outs to his small, but increasingly visible, black constituency. His mention of "national unity" and "equal justice" - themes that resonate with people who feel marginalized by the larger society - was as telling as his call to fight AIDS in the black community.

If there was any doubt that President Bush was serious about bringing more blacks into the GOP fold, it ended Wednesday. The president and black conservatives are in the midst of a coming-out party, and both sides seem to be benefiting. Mr. Bush got 8 percent of the black vote in 2000. In 2004, he got 11 percent. In return, the ministers got the president's ear.

Last week, Mr. Bush met separately with members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus and with a group of black ministers and business people, some of whom were Republicans, many fiscal or social conservatives. He talked policy and legislative agenda with the black caucus, a group with whom he has a tepid relationship. He talked warmly of "shared values" with the other group.

The strength of those nebulous shared values has stretched from the White House to black churches around the country, forging unlikely partnerships between conservative white evangelical Republicans and historically Democratic black ministers who have found common ground on the issue of gay marriage. The question is whether the partnerships will bridge the racial divide that split them and translate into meaningful commitments to work together to attack pressing social problems.

Some black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, have lamented that black ministers are staking so much on one issue even though white conservatives had not reached out to them in the past.

No matter; this didn't stop black ministers from Baltimore from joining with white clergy recently to rally outside the State House for a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But the rally raised an obvious question: Why haven't the ministers' white counterparts visited dilapidated city neighborhoods to rally against crime and federal neglect?

Perhaps it's time local black leaders and ministers take a page from the president's playbook and use their new friends in the service of their larger political and social agendas.

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