If Bush wants to woo blacks, he must talk about poverty

July 25, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- "It's all about Iraq."

So said Dick Gregory, the comedian, civil rights activist and conspiracy theorist, when I asked why he thought President Bush decided to address the annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention last Thursday for the first time in his presidency.

"He wants to send a message out of here to support the Voting Rights Act," Mr. Gregory said at the Washington Convention Center after the speech. "How could he call for democracy in Iraq if black folks don't have it here at home?"

Mr. Gregory's Iraq theory was only one of the more unusual speculations I heard regarding Mr. Bush's motives. Among the others:

"We're glad he came, but he's really trying to reach another audience: white moderate swing voters in the suburbs."

"He likes Bruce Gordon (the new NAACP president and a retired Verizon executive). They speak the same corporate language."

"He's desperate. Midterm elections are coming. Have you seen his approval ratings?"

"This is his atonement for (the government's sluggish response to victims of Hurricane) Katrina."

"He's trying to say that Kanye West (the rapper who famously said Mr. Bush `doesn't like black people') was wrong."

Pick your favorite motive. The last time Mr. Bush addressed the NAACP, he was a presidential candidate in 2000. A few months later, the organization broadcast an attack ad that implied then-Texas Gov. Bush supported the truck-dragging murder of a black man in that state by two white men. After that affront, Mr. Bush spoke to the National Urban League and other black groups, but not to the NAACP, until now.

Since then, the NAACP has pretended Mr. Bush had no reason to feel all that insulted, and the Bush administration has pretended that he had nothing to gain by talking to the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. Both were wrong.

I have another possible reason why Mr. Bush decided to return: He hopes everyone will forget how quickly he lost interest in fighting poverty after delivering back-to-back speeches on the subject last September after Hurricane Katrina. No new anti-poverty initiatives came up in his State of the Union speech in January or his most recent budget.

Such glaring omissions help to explain why Mr. Bush has failed to build very much on the black voter turnout he received in 2004. Mr. Bush drew 11 percent of the black vote overall against Democratic challenger John Kerry, and as high as 14 percent in some states. Mr. Bush's success was aided by a grass-roots campaign that aroused black churchgoers over same-sex marriage, a hot-button issue that has nothing to do with race or poverty.

Republicans have work to do if they want to reach more black voters, and the president knows it. "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush called for "a new founding," the completion of the civil rights movement's dreams and of the ideals laid down by the nation's founders. He could begin by addressing a thorny topic he conspicuously has omitted from his speeches: the growing crisis of young, undereducated black men.

The conditions of undereducated and disconnected young black males have worsened by every measure in recent university studies published by the Urban Institute, despite the last decade's economic boom.

The welfare-reform law that President Bill Clinton signed 10 years ago helped reduce the number of women and children in poverty. But, the jobless rate for male high school dropouts in their 20s soared to 72 percent by 2004 for blacks, compared with 34 percent for whites and 19 percent for Hispanics. Mr. Bush can't solve that challenge by himself, but he could help. His favored recipe of public-private partnerships and faith-based initiatives, for example, could help usher a lot of young black men off parole and onto payrolls.

And the NAACP could help too. If it really wants to do what its name advocates for "colored people," there are thousands of unemployed and disconnected young men of color waiting to be advanced. Speeches are nice; action is better.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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