Black September, Part Four: Can we talk?

When I first began this series in September of last year, it was motivated by a series of race-related events that occurred in that month alone. Since that time, the issue of race has taken center stage in America with the rise of Barack Obama’s campaign for President.  If Senator Obama’s candidacy does nothing else, it has sparked conversations about race relations in America on a scale I’ve not personally witnessed in decades.

Senator Obama’s speech on race this past week, precipitated by the controversy over incendiary comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor and long-time spiritual mentor, is a milestone in the national dialogue on race, whatever your perceptions of it may be. Some felt it was one of the most significant speeches ever given on race in America, while others thought it didn’t go far enough to repudiate the hateful words of Rev. Wright toward America, its government and white people in general. Even pundits who orbit in the same ideological universe disagreed.  Peggy Noonan, the former speechwriter for President Reagan, called the speech “strong, thoughtful and important” while Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington Post’s few relatively conservative opinion writers, railed against the vitriol of Rev. Wright’s statements and called Obama’s speech “little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.” I’ve had Republican friends who praised it and others who damned it. It’s got America talking, however.  As Peggy Noonan put it in her opinion piece offering measured praise of the speech, “They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they'd experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.”
While Senator Obama’s speech is the capstone thus far of the nation’s recent reawakening on the issue of race, it’s not the only event of note in this campaign season. It’s been fascinating to watch Senator Hillary Clinton or her surrogates, including former President Bill Clinton, subtly use the issue of race to discredit Senator Obama’s campaign, and then deny ever playing the race card. I, for one, find their denials disingenuous. The veiled comments about his past drug use, the comparison of his campaign to that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988 so as to define him as “the black candidate,” the haughty dismissal of his primary or caucus victories, especially in states with large black populations, the subtle doubts about the veracity of his Christian faith (“as far as I know”?), the comments that he wouldn’t be where he is as a candidate if he weren’t black were so innocent – the list is so long that it’s hard to give the Clintons any room to maneuver out of the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.  If they are innocent of using race as a weapon against Senator Obama, why did Senator Clinton feel compelled to apologize to black newspaper editors at their recent national convention? Oh, yes, I forgot – it was one of those apologies where the person apologizing basically puts the culpability on the aggrieved party. You know the words by heart - “You know I am sorry if anyone was offended.” This is a conditional apology that assumes her statements and those of her surrogates were innocuous and simply misinterpreted by overly sensitive black people. The Clintons are many things to many people but no one ever accused them of being naïve or stupid, especially during a campaign.
Ironically, these are the very same Clintons who were so revered in the black community that famed black poet Toni Morrison declared Bill Clinton “the first black president.” For the record, I rejected that characterization of him because this tongue-in-cheek title was bestowed on him for traits that are reflective of only a small slice of black America – “single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." That description doesn’t encapsulate the black American experience and doesn’t make Bill Clinton “black” either.
In any case, the Clintons have alienated even some of their staunchest black supporters with their thinly veiled attempts to use race as a differentiating issue for voters.  The backlash is so great that they’ve pulled back somewhat and confined themselves to more garden-variety political attacks. It may be too late.  Before the campaign season officially began, Senator Clinton had a solid lead among black voters of 60 percent or more. Since the primaries and caucuses began, however, Senator Obama is capturing the black vote by enormous margins, in some cases 80 to 90 percent. If Senator Clinton somehow wins the Democratic nomination, the bitterness she has engendered among black voters is so great that I wouldn’t be surprised if they stayed home in November. This campaign has exposed not only the Clintons’ hunger for power regardless of the cost, but also their ability to use race as a wedge issue as well as any member of what Senator Clinton calls “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”
This brings me back to the event in September 2007 around which this installment of the series is based. It involved Bill O’Reilly and the Rev. Al Sharpton, neither of whom are strangers to controversy. Rev. Sharpton treated Mr. O’Reilly to dinner at Sylvia’s, a legendary soul food restaurant in Harlem.  Subsequently, he recounted his dining experience on his radio show and tried to point out that the image of blacks often portrayed in the media isn’t based on reality:
"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks [and has a] primarily black patronship," O'Reilly said. "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea!'
"It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people [who] were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."
His remarks provoked cries of racism from critics and prompted Rev. Sharpton to ask him directly about his comments while a guest on Mr. O’Reilly’s television program, The O’Reilly Factor. Mr. O’Reilly fired back at his critics, claiming he was only trying to illustrate that most of white America gets their notions of black America from rap music and the hip-hop culture and that they’d be surprised if they got out more:
"This is what white America doesn't know, particularly people who don't have a lot of interaction with black Americans. They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg,"
Rev. Sharpton accepted his explanation and pointed out to Mr. O’Reilly’s critics that the two of them have dined together in Harlem many times before and that he would be surprised if his comments were intentionally racist. Still, the episode illustrates that blacks and whites in 21st century “post-racial” America are still on a hair trigger when it comes to comments about race.
Whenever a racially-charged statement or action such as the O’Reilly incident is reported, we get calls from opinion-makers, pundits and community leaders for more dialogue in order to diffuse the tension and prevent future occurrences of the offensive activity in question. Dialogue is offered up as the salve that will raise everyone’s racial consciousness and lead us all to a better understanding of one another.
How constructive is dialogue, however, when blacks and whites view the world so differently? The Pew Research Center, a respected non-partisan research institution, conducted a survey on racial attitudes in America in late 2007 that accurately captures these divergent worldviews:
“The new nationwide Pew Research Center survey also finds blacks less upbeat about the state of black progress now than at any time since 1983. Looking backward, just one-in-five blacks say things are better for blacks now than they were five years ago. Looking ahead, fewer than half of all blacks (44%) say they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57% who said so in a 1986 survey.
“Whites have a different perspective. While they, too, have grown less sanguine about black progress, they are nearly twice as likely as blacks to see black gains in the past five years. Also, a majority of whites (56%) say life for blacks in this country will get better in the future.”
Consider that in 2004, this same research center reported that “On most issues relating to race, the gap in opinion between white and black Americans remains substantial.”

Senator Obama’s speech on race this past week, precipitated by the controversy over incendiary comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor and long-time spiritual mentor, is a milestone in the national dialogue on race, whatever your perceptions of it may be. Some felt it was one of the most significant speeches ever given on race in America, while others thought it didn’t go far enough to repudiate the hateful words of Rev. Wright toward America, its government and white people in general. Even pundits who orbit in the same ideological universe disagreed.  Peggy Noonan, the former speechwriter for President Reagan, called the speech “strong, thoughtful and important” while Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington Post’s few relatively conservative opinion writers, railed against the vitriol of Rev. Wright’s statements and called Obama’s speech “little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.” I’ve had Republican friends who praised it and others who damned it. It’s got America talking, however.  As Peggy Noonan put it in her opinion piece offering measured praise of the speech, “They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they'd experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.”

While Senator Obama’s speech is the capstone thus far of the nation’s recent reawakening on the issue of race, it’s not the only event of note in this campaign season. It’s been fascinating to watch Senator Hillary Clinton or her surrogates, including former President Bill Clinton, subtly use the issue of race to discredit Senator Obama’s campaign, and then deny ever playing the race card. I, for one, find their denials disingenuous. The veiled comments about his past drug use, the comparison of his campaign to that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988 so as to define him as “the black candidate,” the haughty dismissal of his primary or caucus victories, especially in states with large black populations, the subtle doubts about the veracity of his Christian faith (“as far as I know”?), the comments that he wouldn’t be where he is as a candidate if he weren’t black were so innocent – the list is so long that it’s hard to give the Clintons any room to maneuver out of the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.  If they are innocent of using race as a weapon against Senator Obama, why did Senator Clinton feel compelled to apologize to black newspaper editors at their recent national convention? Oh, yes, I forgot – it was one of those apologies where the person apologizing basically puts the culpability on the aggrieved party. You know the words by heart - “You know I am sorry if anyone was offended.” This is a conditional apology that assumes her statements and those of her surrogates were innocuous and simply misinterpreted by overly sensitive black people. The Clintons are many things to many people but no one ever accused them of being naïve or stupid, especially during a campaign.

Ironically, these are the very same Clintons who were so revered in the black community that famed black poet Toni Morrison declared Bill Clinton “the first black president.” For the record, I rejected that characterization of him because this tongue-in-cheek title was bestowed on him for traits that are reflective of only a small slice of black America – “single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." That description doesn’t encapsulate the black American experience and doesn’t make Bill Clinton “black” either.

In any case, the Clintons have alienated even some of their staunchest black supporters with their thinly veiled attempts to use race as a differentiating issue for voters.  The backlash is so great that they’ve pulled back somewhat and confined themselves to more garden-variety political attacks. It may be too late.  Before the campaign season officially began, Senator Clinton had a solid lead among black voters of 60 percent or more. Since the primaries and caucuses began, however, Senator Obama is capturing the black vote by enormous margins, in some cases 80 to 90 percent. If Senator Clinton somehow wins the Democratic nomination, the bitterness she has engendered among black voters is so great that I wouldn’t be surprised if they stayed home in November. This campaign has exposed not only the Clintons’ hunger for power regardless of the cost, but also their ability to use race as a wedge issue as well as any member of what Senator Clinton calls “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”

This brings me back to the event in September 2007 around which this installment of the series is based. It involved Bill O’Reilly and the Rev. Al Sharpton, neither of whom are strangers to controversy. Rev. Sharpton treated Mr. O’Reilly to dinner at Sylvia’s, a legendary soul food restaurant in Harlem.  Subsequently, he recounted his dining experience on his radio show and tried to point out that the image of blacks often portrayed in the media isn’t based on reality:

"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks[and has a] primarily black patronship," O'Reilly said. "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea!'

"It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people [who] were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

His remarks provoked cries of racism from critics and prompted Rev. Sharpton to ask him directly about his comments while a guest on Mr. O’Reilly’s television program, The O’Reilly Factor. Mr. O’Reilly fired back at his critics, claiming he was only trying to illustrate that most of white America gets their notions of black America from rap music and the hip-hop culture and that they’d be surprised if they got out more:

"This is what white America doesn't know, particularly people who don't have a lot of interaction with black Americans. They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg,"

Rev. Sharpton accepted his explanation and pointed out to Mr. O’Reilly’s critics that the two of them have dined together in Harlem many times before and that he would be surprised if his comments were intentionally racist. Still, the episode illustrates that blacks and whites in 21st century “post-racial” America are still on a hair trigger when it comes to comments about race.

Whenever a racially-charged statement or action such as the O’Reilly incident is reported, we get calls from opinion-makers, pundits and community leaders for more dialogue in order to diffuse the tension and prevent future occurrences of the offensive activity in question. Dialogue is offered up as the salve that will raise everyone’s racial consciousness and lead us all to a better understanding of one another.

How constructive is dialogue, however, when blacks and whites view the world so differently? The Pew Research Center, a respected non-partisan research institution, conducted a survey on racial attitudes in America in late 2007 that accurately captures these divergent worldviews:

“The new nationwide Pew Research Center survey also finds blacks less upbeat about the state of black progress now than at any time since 1983. Looking backward, just one-in-five blacks say things are better for blacks now than they were five years ago. Looking ahead, fewer than half of all blacks (44%) say they think life for blacks will get better in the future, down from the 57% who said so in a 1986 survey.

“Whites have a different perspective. While they, too, have grown less sanguine about black progress, they are nearly twice as likely as blacks to see black gains in the past five years. Also, a majority of whites (56%) say life for blacks in this country will get better in the future.”

Consider that in 2004, this same research center reported that “On most issues relating to race, the gap in opinion between white and black Americans remains substantial.”

An even more revealing study asked white volunteers how much money would cover the "costs" of being born black in America, and they estimated that $5,000 was sufficient. According to one article referencing the study, "Whites are more than twice as likely as blacks to believe that the position of African-Americans has improved a great deal. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to believe that conditions for African Americans are growing worse." Interestingly enough, some of the white volunteers in the study were given information about the disparities between blacks and whites in America, and they demanded a much larger sum of money, $500,000. The yardstick by which blacks and whites measure black progress was critical to the conclusions reached by each group. Whites tend to compare the present to the past and see significant and positive change for blacks, while blacks measure their status against an ideal future and find the nation still wanting. When each group was asked to use the other's yardstick, the differences disappeared.

So with whites and blacks viewing the world through different prisms, how do we get to a place where dialogue is actually meaningful?

Black September, Part Three: Blacks and Republicans - Can We Reconcile?

Tavis Smiley had the Republican Party in his sights and he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to take aim and fire. The first of two live presidential forums sponsored by the Public Broadcasting Service and moderated by Mr. Smiley, a noted black author, journalist and commentator, took place on June 28th on the campus of historically black Howard University in Washington, DC. All eight of the Democratic candidates were there, elbowing each other to see who could curry more favor with voters of color. Behind the scenes, Mr. Smiley and PBS had also spent months in preparation for a similar forum for the Republican candidates, and Maryland’s former lieutenant governor, black Republican Michael Steele, and former national GOP chairman Ken Mehlman encouraged them to host the event at another historically black university, Morgan State University in Mr. Mehlman’s hometown of Baltimore.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, however, and Mr. Smiley wasn’t laughing. In fact, he was fuming – in print, on TV, and on the radio. The men considered the four major Republican contenders at the time – former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain and former Senator Fred Thompson – had all declined to participate, citing scheduling conflicts. Some indicated that scheduling a forum in the last week of the fundraising cycle left them with a difficult choice between participation in the debate or raising desperately needed funds for their campaigns.

Mr. Smiley wasn’t buying it, and neither were the Republicans who worked with Mr. Smiley to arrange this forum. Michael Steele insisted that the GOP front-runners come to the table, saying "I think it's an important opportunity for Republican candidates to put up or shut up, when it comes to minority communities in the country." Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, a Republican with a notable track record of outreach to minority voters since his days as a U.S. Congressman from Buffalo, said, “…we sound like we don't want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do—meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we're going to be competitive with people of color, we've got to ask them for their vote."

Newt Gingrich, in my opinion the greatest thinker and intellectual force in the conservative movement today, was direct and unflinching in his criticism:

“For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error. I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules. I see no excuse — this thing has been planned for months, these candidates have known about it for months. It’s just fundamentally wrong. Any of them who give you that scheduling-conflict answer are disingenuous. That’s baloney.”

Finally, Mr. Smiley himself said to the Washington Post, "When you reject every black invitation and every brown invitation you receive, is that a scheduling issue or is it a pattern? I don't believe anybody should be elected president of the United States if they think along the way they can ignore people of color. That's just not the America we live in."

I was also annoyed, but not just at the four candidates who declined to participate. I was also annoyed at the pundits and commentators for casting aspersions on the entire GOP because of those who didn’t attend the forum rather than pointing out and praising the five candidates – former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Representative Dr. Ron Paul, Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Tom Tancredo and Representative Duncan Hunter – who did. Do a Google search using the term “GOP minority candidates” and see how many references come up that are highly critical of the GOP in its entirety for their lack of participation in the forum, but practically dismiss the participation of the “lesser-known” candidates. If we as people of color are sincere in our desire to have more choices in the political process, we need to resist the urge to smack down all Republicans regardless of their efforts and build up the ones who are trying to build bridges to us and our communities. Given that at least one of those “lesser-known” candidates has now surged to the top tier in the months since the forum, we dismiss the Republicans who seek a dialogue with us at our own peril.

I also think it’s instructive to look at this through the lens of the absentee Republicans themselves. As a card-carrying Republican since 1978 except for one year where I was disgusted with both parties and switched my registration to independent, I feel somewhat qualified to put words to how Republicans feel about reaching out to the mainstream black community. Frankly, the belief among most Republicans is that black leaders and much of the black community immediately launch into insults and vitriol with the mere mention of the word “Republican” and they never get past that emotional reaction to actually have a constructive dialogue. They witness the verbal pounding taken by blacks who have the audacity to present themselves to the electorate as Republicans, and the sheer hypocrisy of white liberals using racist language and imagery to excoriate black conservatives while black liberals either let it happen or encourage it, and their reaction is “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Let’s be honest with ourselves; politicians are not inclined to go where they believe they’re not welcome. When was the last time you saw a leading Democrat in front of a convention of pro-life, pro-traditional marriage evangelicals like the thousands who gathered in Washington, DC a few weeks ago for a Values Voters Summit? All the Democratic contenders were invited but they didn’t come. When I was running for office, I was routinely advised not to fill out a particular survey or attend a specific event because it was a no-win situation – I couldn’t win them over to my point of view and I’d probably say or write something that would end up in the papers and do more harm than good to my campaign. Moreover, when you have very little time to win people to your side, it’s a poor use of time and resources to court people who are hostile toward you before you even open your mouth because you carry the wrong label.

There’s another reason why Republicans are reluctant to appear before black audiences.  When the Democrats failed to show up at the Values Voters Summit, there may have been an outcry similar to that over the PBS forum in Baltimore but I’ll bet no one heard about it – I certainly didn’t. Republicans believe it’s because their message is marginalized within the mainstream media, while blacks have a louder megaphone and are given ample opportunity to use it when they are aggrieved. They think if they screw up in front of a black audience, they will hear about it in 7.1 channel surround sound and it will be played over and over again on the evening news and in the front pages of the major newspapers.  Again, ask a campaign strategist whether or not they want to take that risk, and he’ll look at you sideways with a patronizing look before he walks away to consider more sensible options.

So the bottom line is Republicans are afraid that blacks hate them just because they’re Republicans and they won’t be able to say anything without being publically pilloried on all major news outlets. To those who wish to see a greater dialogue between the black community and the Republican Party, and I count myself in that number, we need to figure out how to change the culture between these two groups. In my opinion, both sides have some growing up to do. Republicans need to get a backbone and stand before all the people they hope to serve. Blacks need to get over their emotional attachment to one political party and become free agents in the political process if they don’t want to be taken for granted. Politics isn’t “family,” as one black constituent declared to a black Prince George’s County Council member who dared to buck the black orthodoxy and endorse a black Republican last year for the U.S. Senate. Politics is business – it’s a give and take between people who want something from each other, and it takes dialogue to reach a consensus that works for both sides. If you refuse to talk, then reconciliation isn’t possible.

I use the word “reconciliation” quite deliberately. Those who think the Democrats have always been the party of favor in the black community and the Republicans always on the margins haven’t examined the history of racial politics in America. Blacks probably know that Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, “freed the slaves” – he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t exactly a champion for equal rights for blacks, either, but let’s go with that. The GOP until the early 1960s was considered the party of civil rights –every major amendment to the Bill of Rights addressing equal protection under the law and equal citizenship was sponsored and passed by Republicans. Every major piece of civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1956, was enacted by Republicans. It was a Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who enforced the integration court order at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas by calling out the National Guard to escort the “Little Rock Nine” to classes that fateful September day in 1957. Even the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have been defeated if the then-Senate minority leader, Republican Everett Dirksen, hadn’t rallied the Republican Senate caucus on President Johnson’s behalf to thwart Democrats opposed to the measure, one of whom, Senator Robert Byrd, still serves in the Senate today. Republicans were also instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even Richard Nixon, considered by many to be one of the least likable Republicans, got 32 percent of the black vote in the 1960 Presidential election. The next Republican nominee for President in 1964? Four percent. No Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 15% since then.

So what happened?

The GOP began to lose its grip on the black vote under President Herbert Hoover, a pro-business Republican who many say failed to engage government to rescue those suffering from the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt oversaw a massive expansion of government to lift the nation out of the Depression and, while scholars and political analysts continue to debate over the long-term consequences of his “New Deal,” it’s clear that the black community, which suffers the most during national economic downturns, benefitted greatly from it.

Another factor was the Republican Party’s philosophical embrace of federalism, the division of roles and responsibilities between the federal and state governments to prevent the abuse of power by a centralized government. The Tenth Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” While the amendment was written to protect the people from an overly intrusive and paternalistic central government, it was abused in practice by states, particularly in the South, which declared “states rights” and condemned federal intervention in their affairs in order to defend legalized segregation. The term “states rights” comprised the official name of the “Dixiecrats” who broke away from the national Democratic Party in 1948 and created the States’ Rights Democratic Party to defend the Southern “way of life” which included depriving blacks of their civil liberties under the Constitution.

Throughout most of the GOP’s history, it emphasized liberty and equal justice and used the power of the federal government to ensure the rights of all people were protected. When Republicans underwent a philosophical shift in the early 1960s, however, and began to preach the supremacy of state governments over the federal government, blacks left the GOP in droves because they perceived “states rights” as anathema to their interests.

Senator Barry Goldwater, the leader of the new conservative movement within the GOP and an ardent proponent of states rights, made a statement in Atlanta in 1961 that eventually turned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent black leader of his time, against him and the Republican Party:

“We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.”

Despite the fact that, up to that point in his tenure as a U.S. Senator, Goldwater had supported every major civil rights bill that came before him, the black community was critical of his comments. In their opinion, he was effectively saying “GOP to Blacks: Drop Dead.” When Senator Goldwater subsequently voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ostensibly because he considered it federal intrusion into state matters, and became the Republican nominee for President in 1964, Dr. King was compelled to speak out. In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., he writes:

“While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy. I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy. While I had followed a policy of not endorsing political candidates, I felt that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.”

Senator Goldwater’s philosophy did not win him the election but it planted the seeds of a Republican political strategy which sought to attract disaffected white Southerners to the party. This was the birth of the “Southern strategy” that Richard Nixon’s political advisors employed to break “the solid South” and move voters into the GOP column. Nixon picked up five Southern states in the 1968 presidential election despite the independent candidacy of avowed segregationalist and Alabama governor George Wallace. In 1972, Nixon swept the South, an unprecedented feat for a Republican candidate of recent vintage.

In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan gave a speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the scene of the June 21, 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, in which he declared, “I believe in states rights.” The use of what many people considered a code phrase for legalized segregation and the location he chose to give his speech led many to accuse Reagan of appealing to the latent racism of Southern voters. The separation between blacks and the GOP was complete and apparently irreversible.

There are some Republicans who are critical of any minority outreach that first requires an apology for the “Southern strategy.” They say the strategy was not racist but sought to reach out to all Southerners who felt abandoned as the Democratic Party began embracing positions that disrespected their religious values, economic interests and their support for national security and public safety. Others believe apologizing to a group of people who will never respect the gesture is humiliating and meaningless. I have two responses to this line of reasoning.

First, if you think race wasn’t at least a key factor in the “Southern strategy,” then you’re not paying attention. Even if one accepts the argument that these contenders for the Presidency were ignorant of the emotionally charged nature of their words and actions,their advisors certainly weren’t. When the GOP nominee kicks off his general election campaign in a location infamous in civil rights history and uses the term “states’ rights” to describe his beliefs, it’s virtually impossible to conclude that race had nothing to do with it.

Second, a sincere apology is a great starting point for a constructive dialogue that will benefit the GOP and the black community. Those who adopt the principle of politics as war may never accept this idea, viewing an apology as tantamount to surrender. I believe, however, it’s time for both sides to acknowledge that they need each other and someone has to make the first move. The GOP needs the black community if it’s to become a true mainstream party. There is plenty of diversity in the black community and moderate to conservative blacks will give the Republicans a serious look if they pay more than lip service to black issues and concerns. Blacks need the GOP so they can expand their options on the political menu and keep both major parties attuned to their agenda. Their overwhelming allegiance to the Democrats means they can be taken for granted by one party and ignored by the other. Whatever one may think of the GOP, this is not the most advantageous political arrangement for the black community in the 21st century.

So can blacks and the GOP reconcile? I think it can happen but a generational change is going to have to occur first. I think the hard feelings between the blacks of the civil rights era and the Republican Party run too deep. Even so, I believe that some concrete steps can and should be taken today to reconcile these two warring factions:

Discard all “50% Plus one” electoral strategies – Today’s politics is based less on building a consensus among as many people as possible and more on maximizing the support of those who agree with you and discarding the rest. That needs to stop. As a former candidate for public office, I understand that a campaign has limited time and resources to deliver its message and needs to concentrate on communities where they can generate the greatest return. The margin of error today, however, is so slim that I don’t believe either party can afford to ignore anyone. Electoral strategies that seek to polarize are not only unlikely to work in the end, they are not consistent with American values.

Go if you’re invited – If you’re a Republican and the NAACP invites you to speak to them, go. Don’t miss an opportunity to speak to audiences that don’t traditionally embrace you. Look at it as a teaching and learning opportunity for both sides.

Find common ground – Blacks and GOP social conservatives share a deep religious conviction and hold the same views on many issues which have their origins in the faith community. Other surveys suggest common ground on offering parents more choices for educating their children and protecting private property rights. The rising class of black entrepreneurs are open to economic policies that expand opportunities for minority business ownership and the creation of generational wealth that can be passed on to their children. Developing a GOP agenda for the black community doesn’t require a compromise of Republican values, just a broadening of the mind to view issues from another’s perspective. Those who object to an agenda which caters to a particular segment of society are either naïve or worse. Politics is all about building coalitions to achieve victory and that means communicating in the language and approach of those whose support you seek.

Pick your battles – There are issues which have great significance and meaning in the black community but have been rejected by Republicans on philosophical grounds or for political expediency. Each rejection adds another brick to the wall dividing the GOP and the black community. For example, the District of Columbia’s pursuit of a voting representative to the U.S. Congress has consistently been blocked time and again by Republicans who hold up the Constitution in defense of their position, but it just reinforces their brand identity as racists in the eyes of the more than 580,000 people, mostly black, who want the same voice in the U.S. Congress as their fellow Americans. I don’t believe that our Founding Fathers intended for hundreds of thousands of American citizens to be regulated and taxed without representation in their federal government. It was a Republican, Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who most recently introduced legislation to grant District residents a voting representative in Congress, and two prominent black Republicans, Michael Steele and former U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts, have called on the GOP to pass the legislation. The Republican Party should honor its historical heritage and free the citizens of the District from taxation without representation.

This is just one example of how a change in position could earn the GOP some goodwill in the black community. Another would be correcting inequities in the criminal justice system that punish poor black drug addicts more than rich white ones. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee embraces this position and also supported rehabilitation and reentry into society for non-violent drug offenders while governor of Arkansas. He believes in sentencing reforms based on equal justice rather than revenge, a policy which in the eyes of the black community would correct what they perceive as an inherent bias in the system against blacks. The bottom line is Republicans need to remember that a hand extended in friendship is better received when there’s a gift in it.

Embrace your heritage – Some people see no relationship between the Republican Party created in 1854 and the GOP of today. I disagree. The one characteristic that is consistent throughout the party’s history is its emphasis on individual liberty, whether it’s liberty from the chains of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow laws, or a paternalistic government that stifles individual initiative and industry. In that context, I see no incongruity with the black community’s ongoing quest for equal justice. There is no liberty without justice, and the administration of justice to uphold our nation’s most cherished ideals is a fundamental function of government. When institutions within our borders fail to honor individual liberty, the GOP ought to be at the forefront of enforcing liberty as an inalienable right not only of Americans but all of mankind.

Thicken your skin – We Republicans can do all of these things and demonstrate a genuine commitment to reconciliation with the black community, yet we’ll still be heckled and insulted, we’ll still be the targets of racially charged language not normally allowed in civil discourse, and we won’t get any credit for the things we do in support of the black community. That’s just the way it is; we’re not going to change the tone and tenor of this fractured relationship overnight.

I am optimistic about the opportunity for reconciliation because I’ve witnessed more people on both sides willing to ask questions and examine issues based on their merits rather than react with their emotions. The GOP is reassessing itself after the electoral defeats of 2006 and this presents a golden opportunity for us to rethink assumptions and policies that have guided our party for over 40 years. The black community is beginning to suspect that their unfettered allegiance to one party isn’t in their long-term best interests and is waiting for the Republicans to give them a proposal to consider.

My optimism notwithstanding, it’s still not going to be easy or fun, especially if you’re a black Republican. You have to decide right up front that it is important enough to the well-being of blacks and the GOP to bring these two historical allies together again. Once you’ve made that decision, you need to gird yourself for battle and fight the good fight until you’re no longer able to do so. You may not see the fruits of your labors, but your children will, and it is my hope and prayer that they will see a nation more unified and respectful of all people than at any time in its history.

Next: Can we talk?

Black September, Part Two: My Thoughts on Jena, Louisiana

There’s perhaps no other state in the union where the paradox of race in America is so vivid than in Louisiana. I was born in Louisiana and my family’s roots go deep into its marshy soil. My great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side was a white slaveowner of French-Swiss and German descent. According to family legend, my great-great-great grandmother, one of his slaves with whom he eventually consorted and had nine children, was at least part Native American and her name suggests the possibility of Italian descent as well. My great-great grandfather, great grandfather and grandfather on my mother’s side were all black. My genealogy mirrors the unique racial and ethnic mix in that state – African, Caribbean, French, Spanish, German, and Native American, just to name the ones that are most prevalent in Louisiana’s history – which could be cleverly described as a “gumbo.” That gumbo’s taste, however, has always been sour rather than scrumptious and I honestly don’t understand how that can be in such a diverse state. Much of the ignorance in this nation about race stems from a lack of contact with different kinds of people on a daily basis, but Louisiana has no such excuse. To use a term from the Harry Potter children’s series, there’s too many “mudbloods” in Louisiana for them to get all uptight over race, but they do it anyway.

Some of the most profound disagreements I had with my family growing up were over the issue of race, and those disagreements usually involved my relatives who had been born and raised in Louisiana. I even walked away from the church for twelve years because of what I perceived as racist statements from the pulpit of a black church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, my hometown. In my opinion, Louisiana is more obsessed with race on both sides of the divide than any other place I’ve ever lived.

As a result, I first read the stories coming out of Jena, Louisiana through perhaps a different lens than many people. “That’s no surprise,” I muttered to myself as I read about the existence of a tree on school grounds where only white students typically sought shade. An innocuous request by black students to sit under the tree led to an escalation of stupidity on both sides – nooses and school fights and heightened racial tensions which abated during football season because they needed their black and white athletes to work together to win. Frankly, their ability to set aside their differences for a time in order to achieve a common objective makes everything that happened subsequently so utterly foolish and unnecessary. The beating of the lone white youth by six black teens isn’t defensible, and I must give credit to the Rev. Al Sharpton for making that statement more than once in his public pronouncements on the case. There was also at least one beating of a black student by white teens that wasn’t as widely reported. 

The charges brought against these two different sets of teens, however, are where school officials and the local district attorney crossed the line. While the white teens were suspended for their behavior, an appropriate response to a schoolyard fight, the black teens were expelled from school and brought up on felony charges as adults. These actions revealed either an incredible insensitivity to the tension around them or blatant racism on the part of the school officials and the local district attorney who brought the charges. Whichever is true, the result is the same – equal justice unrealized.

As for the march on Jena itself, I cringed when I read about more than one person referring to the event as the beginning of the 21st century civil rights movement. If anything, the march bore much more of a resemblance to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. There appeared to be almost an air of nostalgia among the people who were planning and executing the march. Even the terms they used, like “Freedom Riders” and “Free the Jena 6,” seemed like throwbacks to a time our children only read about in history books or watch on PBS. Some were even referring to Jena as the current generation’s Selma!  It was as if the marchers and their leaders were willingly being drawn into a time warp where Jim Crow, “separate but equal” and “colored” and “white” facilities were still very much in existence.

The fact is that Jena isn’t Selma – there was no “Bloody Sunday,” no billy clubs, tear gas, or bull whips, no inflicted injuries, and no one beaten to death. Moreover, the actions of the “Jena 6” are diminished when juxtaposed with the “Little Rock 9.” We recently honored the courage these nine young black people exhibited 50 years ago when they walked through a gauntlet of sheer white rage, escorted by the National Guard under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s order to enforce the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there were other brave young people, black and white, who put their lives at risk for the cause of racial equality, and many of them never returned to their families, their youthful promise snuffed out at the hands of evil and desperate men. The "Jena 6" deserved our help to ensure their punishment was fair, but they aren't the descendants of these young heroes and martyrs of civil rights battles past.

Times have changed and yes, millions of hearts have changed. We would still be in legal bondage if that were not the case. If we are to be credible in our fight for equal justice, we need to have a sense of perspective. It’s not 1965, and we're not standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s 2007 and we are standing on uncertain ground as we assess our current situation.

It was 1965 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned us about the crisis of the disintegrating black family based on what was then a 25% illegitimate birth rate in the black population and the abandonment by young black males of the single mothers and children they created. We didn’t address the problem then out of misplaced pride and births out of wedlock in the black community today are approaching 70%. Most blacks murdered in this country are murdered by other blacks. Black women are three times more likely to abort their babies than whites. The institutions of life and family which kept our community whole during the darkest times are taking a beating every day. They need the same attention we currently devote to ensuring equal justice, or perhaps more given the criticality of the situation.

Our challenges today are threefold. First, we need to celebrate our great successes as a people since the 1960s. The press and our self-anointed black leadership have us believing that there’s nothing good or worthwhile happening in the black community in 2007, and that’s simply untrue.  How will our children know what’s possible if we never show them? We need to honor and give visibility to the achievements in the black community so we can imbue our young people with hope and stir their dreams.

Second, we need to reemphasize and rebuild the black family by promoting in our churches and communities the dignity and value of each individual and the sequential steps to success – graduate from school, take and keep a job, get married and establish a home, and then have children. These actions alone reduce one’s chances of living in poverty by over 300 percent.

Third, we need to relearn how to stay above the fray in our quest for equal justice.  I would never contend that racism is dead. Racism will always be with us because it is part of the fallen nature of man. Our response to racism, however, is how we differentiate ourselves. The success of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was based in its unimpeachable moral integrity. We occupied the high ground even when those who opposed us did not. Romans 12:21 says “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Titus 2:6-8 says, “Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” We are promised trouble in this life and we won’t always be treated fairly. Society today teaches us that if we are hit, we’re supposed to hit back harder and the required response to any slight is outrage. Our responsibility, however, is to adopt the good in the face of the bad. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. The march at Jena was the right thing to do.  Otherwise, the authorities would have pressed ahead with the excessive and unwarranted felony charges against these teens. The authorities in Jena were wrong to levy these charges against the “Jena 6” and have no one but themselves to blame for accusations of racism. Regardless of what the authorities claim, it was the spotlight the march cast on their misdeeds that led them to drop the charges and deal with this case properly. The marchers were exemplary in their behavior and kept a tense situation from escalating further. They did us proud, and I have nothing but the utmost gratitude for those who took the time out of their busy lives to stand in the gap for all of us.

I simply hope the sorry episode in Jena and other pockets of ignorance throughout the nation don't blind us to the real progress we’ve made since the days of Selma, or take our focus away from the challenges of the present and future. I can’t speak for anyone else but given a choice of the era in which I’d rather live, I think I’ll take the new millennium over the 1960s.

Next: Blacks and Republicans – Can we reconcile?

Black September, Part One: One Month in America

It’s amazing what one month can do to show us we still haven’t settled the question of race in America. In September alone we’ve had: - The massive protests last week in Jena, Louisiana, reminiscent of the 1960’s civil rights era, over racially charged incidents at a local high school and what many view as the unjustly harsh sentences of six black teenagers for beating a white schoolmate.

- The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s accusation that presidential candidate Barack Obama, whom he has endorsed, was “acting like he’s white” because of his measured response to the “Jena 6” episode.

- Continuing fallout from the Michael Vick dogfighting case, with indictments on state charges in Virginia announced this week and a town hall meeting on the “Vick Divide” in Atlanta sponsored by ESPN that was so racially contentious that even the local director of the American Humane Society was shouted down for pointing out the horrific acts Vick committed against defenseless animals.

- Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, widely regarded as the poster child for successful black athletes, stating in comments aired this month on HBO’s Real Sports that black quarterbacks are subject to more scrutiny and criticism than white quarterbacks.

- The noose found hanging from a tree in front of a cultural center serving primarily minority students at the University of Maryland in College Park.

- O.J. Simpson back in the news with the publication of the controversial book, “If I Did It” by Fred Goldman, the father of murder victim Ron Goldman, after he was awarded the rights to the manuscript in which Simpson “hypothetically” describes how the murders of Goldman and Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson went down. Oh, yes, he’s back in jail also after being arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping over some sports memorabilia he claims was his.

- Bill O’Reilly’s comments about his dinner date with the Rev. Al Sharpton in which he appeared to express surprise at the quality of service and the well-mannered customers at a Harlem restaurant owned and patronized by blacks. He argues that he was speaking of the contrast between his experiences and the views of most Americans whose perceptions about blacks are influenced by the rap and hip-hop culture, and how important it is for whites to get out more.

- Five of the Republican candidates for President, including the four front-runners, snubbing a long-scheduled minority issues debate at a historically black university. Some, including many Republicans, have criticized the no-shows for not attempting to engage minority voters, while others say there’s no reason for them to show up at a forum where they are likely to be vilified by a hostile and immovable audience.

Pretty unbelievable, isn’t it? These are just the newsworthy items, and there are probably several more in the news that I missed and even more that take place every day outside of press scrutiny. Personally, the events of this month regarding race have me in a state of despair over the topic and it was the Vick town hall meeting that put me over the edge.

Here is a situation where the highest paid athlete in the NFL, heavily marketed as the face of the NFL and making silly amounts of money from huge endorsement deals, engaged in clearly illegal and unspeakably cruel activity for six years. His illegal activities were discovered by chance, not by design, and the preponderance of the evidence and the collusion of his accomplices with the authorities led him to plead guilty to federal crimes. Right up to that time, he lied to his teammates, the owner of the team, the commissioner of the NFL and the legion of fans who bought his jersey and wore his shoes. He himself has accepted full responsibility for his actions and blamed no one, not even his posse. Yet when ESPN hosts a town hall meeting on the topic, it degenerates into a shout-down by a horde of pro-Vick audience members, mostly black, who want to frame this issue in racial terms. They were rude to the panel members who held an alternative view, regardless of their race, and they even dismissed Vick’s actions and their categorization as a federal offense as insignificant because they were “just dogs.” They even demonstrated a complete lack of perspective by trying to compare Vick’s illegal and vicious behavior with that of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick who was recently punished by the NFL for filming the opposing team’s defensive signals. Chuck Smith, a former teammate of Vick’s and a black man, tried to point out the silliness of this analogy and he was booed lustily by the crowd. My heart sank. I’ll be honest – I was embarrassed by their behavior. We have a fairly recent history of defending our scoundrels, the aforementioned O.J. Simpson being a signature case, and justifying it because of the injustices of the past. The weights and measures of equal justice, however, are right and wrong, not black and white, and if we are to be credible partners in calibrating the scales of justice so they work equally for everyone, we need to stand for right and wrong above all else.

One of the more irritating comments made during this town hall meeting was by another teammate of Vick’s who is still very close to him. He admonished the listeners to be careful how they judge others because they’ll be judged equally in return. The crowd erupted in cheers, and it turned my stomach. Just last month, another black athlete in trouble with the law, Travis Henry, declared that “only God can judge me” over his inability to pay child support for the nine children he procreated – I can’t use the word “fathered” because he’s no father – with nine different women in four different states. What a charade to pridefully wrap yourself in the Word of God to justify behavior He condemns without reservation or condition!

As a Christian, I know that God, the Creator of the Universe, the Ultimate Judge, doesn’t excuse my sins simply because I’m black. He forgives me, but only if I’m truly repentant and I change my ways. Moreover, even His forgiveness doesn’t excuse me from being held accountable for my actions, and He clearly grants government the authority to administer justice and enforce accountability for illegal actions – those who reject terrestrial judgment ought to read Romans 13 in its entirety. The only time we are to stand against the authorities of this earth is when their laws are in violation of God’s laws, and we are to do so peacefully and respectfully. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated in word and deed the Biblical way to stand against injustice and if he expended his precious moral capital on scoundrels, I’ve neither seen nor heard of it. This tendency by people who are either in trouble or defending others in trouble to hide behind God’s grace by defiantly declaring “only God can judge me” ought to be careful what they wish for. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

Next Post: My thoughts on Jena, Louisiana.